Britney Spears won a small victory when a judge ruled Wednesday that the pop star could choose her own attorney in her battle to end the conservatorship that has governed nearly every decision about her life, career, and finances for 13 years.
But her bid to wrest control from her father, Jamie Spears, and other conservators has also been a wake-up call for many Americans, including members of Congress, who are discovering just how little they know about the legal arrangements.
“This Britney Spears conservatorship — a word I didn’t know until yesterday — is some of the craziest [expletive] I’ve seen in a long time,” Representative Seth Moulton tweeted after Spears’ first public hearing in June.
In that appearance, Spears, a mother of two, made jaw-dropping accusations against her father and other conservators. She alleged that she was unable to control when she worked, whether she could marry, whether she could remove a birth control device so that she could have more children, and even whether she could renovate her kitchen.
Her testimony spurred civil liberties organizations and disability rights groups to raise awareness about the potential for legal conservatorship and guardianship arrangements to be abused, and calls from lawmakers for better oversight and reforms.
Roughly 1.3 million American adults are under such court-ordered arrangements, which control more than $50 billion in assets. Such orders can be useful tools to help Americans who have physical, mental health, or medical disabilities that make it impossible for them to care for themselves or look after their own affairs. They are governed by state law, with no real federal framework, meaning that the rules governing them — including how someone under conservatorship can seek to end it — vary across the country.
Some legal experts were quick to seize on Spears’ case as an example of, among other things, sexism.
“The idea that it’s news that a grown woman is allowed to choose her own lawyer is absolutely shocking,” attorney Nancy Smith said in an MSNBC interview.
But look at it another way: If a rich, world-famous white woman can find herself in this situation, what about the vast majority of other Americans who don’t have nearly that amount of privilege?
Turns out, we know very little about how their conservatorships are going either, because there are no requirements that states report such data.
Some lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, are seeking answers from Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“Ms. Spears’ case has shined a light on longstanding concerns from advocates who have underscored the potential for financial and civil rights abuses of individuals placed under guardianship or conservatorship,” Warren and Senator Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania wrote in a letter. “Despite these concerns, comprehensive data regarding guardianship (referred to as conservatorship in some states) in the United States are substantially lacking — hindering policymakers and advocates’ efforts to understand gaps and abuses in the system and find ways to address them.”
But they are still trying.
“Spears’ right to select an attorney is not only a basic tenet of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, but also consistent with principles of personal autonomy and agency,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project. The ACLU joined 25 other civil rights, civil liberty, and disability rights organizations that filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Superior Court of Los Angeles County Thursday in support of Spears’ right to select her own attorney for her conservatorship proceedings.
The brief also offers one policy solution: allowing those under conservatorship to have “supported decision-making” services that allow them to have greater say in their affairs. The group offered to help Spears access such services to choose a lawyer.
Spears doesn’t need that help. She’s hired Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor and white-collar defense attorney who now represents a number of Hollywood stars like Sean Penn and Steven Spielberg.
But lawmakers should demand that states provide data to federal officials, and advocates must advocate for reforms that guard against abuse. If it can happen to a pop princess, it can happen to those far less powerful.