Britney Spears: Wow, just wow, is this really America?

The pop star appears in court to dispute the 13 year old conservatorship that has denied her basic freedoms, rights, and autonomy over her own person, even having another child.  For more than a decade, Ms. Spears’ life has not been her own.  One wonders how this is even possible in the land of the free. 

“I want to have the real deal. I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told right now under the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” popstar Britney Spears explained at an emotional court hearing last week.  “I have an [IUD] inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the [IUD] out so I could start trying to have another baby but this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children.”

Ms. Spears’ life has not been her own for the past 13 years.  In 2006 and 2007, the pop star went through a very messy and very public divorce from Kevin Federline.  At the time she appeared to exhibit erratic behavior, from shaving her head to more distressing incidents. For example, in January 2008 she allegedly locked herself in a bathroom with her two children until the police were called.   Ms. Spears was hospitalized shortly thereafter and underwent mental health evaluations including what is known as a “psychiatric hold,” two of them.

A psychiatric hold is a wide-spread practice used to evaluate the mental health of an individual and their ability to function independently without harming themselves and others.  According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, “Three forms of involuntary treatment are authorized by civil commitment laws in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Two forms are available in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee, where court-ordered outpatient treatment has not yet been adopted.”  The forms include an emergency hospitalization for evaluation, inpatient civil commitment, and outpatient civil commitment.  Ms. Spears evaluation was likely for “a crisis response in which a patient is admitted to a treatment facility for psychiatric evaluation, typically for a short period of fixed time (e.g., 72 hours). ‘Psychiatric hold’ or ‘pick-up’ and other terms may be used to describe the process.”

Following the two holds, her father, Jamie Spears, petitioned the courts in California for an emergency temporary conservatorship, an arrangement normally reserved when a person is deemed incompetent.  Ms. Spears was in the hospital at the time and did not appear in court, but Judge Reva Goetz ultimately approved the order, saying “It is in the best interests of the conservatee to have conservatorship over her person.”  She provided no further explanation as far as I could determine. Effectively, the conservatorship gave Mr. Spears complete control of his daughter’s life; he was able to determine who can see her and when, had power to sign or negate contracts in her name, management of her financial assets, and apparently much more. 

Eight months later, Judge Goetz made the conservatorship permanent, saying “The conservatorship is necessary and appropriate for the complexity of financial and business entities and [Britney] being susceptible to undue influence.”  Mr. Spears was now permanently responsible for her “person” and an attorney, Andrew Wallet, was assigned to manage the estate and financial affairs.  From what I can tell, these decisions were made entirely without Ms. Spears’ direct input. She did not appear in court and wasn’t questioned by the judge. It’s possible she was coerced by her own lawyer; apparently he told her that she had a better chance of retaining custody of her children if she didn’t object.  Regardless, the only second hand comment from the songstress herself at the hearing was through the lawyer, claiming she “requested that I not object to the permanent conservatorship.”

Incredibly, in the eight months before the conservatorship was made permanent, Ms. Spears released a hit single, worked on a new album, planned a tour, won three MTV Video Music Awards, and reached a settlement agreement with Kevin Federline.  Barely a month after the conservatorship was made permanent, Britney herself appeared unhappy with the arrangement. “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under right now, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day — if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated,” she said in an MTV documentary, Britney: For The Record. “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear but they’re really not listening…It’s like, it’s bad. I’m sad.”

Ms. Spears would not comment publicly again on the conservatorship for close to a decade, but a recent New York Times expose claims she’s been unhappy all along, along with some of the more draconian details.  In 2016 for example, she told a court investigator she was “sick of being taken advantage of,” complaining that she was “the one working and earning her money but everyone around her is on her payroll,” and that her father was “obsessed” with controlling her life.  Ms. Spears informed the court that she wanted out.  As the court investigator described it, “She articulated she feels the conservatorship has become an oppressive and controlling tool against her,” adding that Spears herself said, “Too much control…Too, too much!”

This obsessives control extended to pretty much everything and anything in her life, from being forced to use contraception to not even being allowed to refinish her kitchen cabinets.  Despite a net worth of somewhere between $60 and $70 million, her conservatorship only allowed her a $2,000 per week allowance, and her father said new cabinets were too expensive.  According to the Times, her father also controlled who she dated and that “she could not make friends without [his] approval.”  If Ms. Spears made mistakes or violated the terms of the conservatorship, she’d face “very harsh” consequences.  For reasons that are completely unexplained, her father also receives a percentage of her income from tours and record sales.  This is in addition to $18,000 per month for administering the conservatorship, including $2,000 a month for office rent and supplies.

Twenty years ago, Ms. Spears was a revenue generating machine.  In 2001, Forbes magazine considered the popstar the world’s most powerful celebrity.  She earned $40 million that year, out performing other singers like Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez.  To this day, she has sold more concert tickets and albums than either.  Jennifer Lopez, however, has a net worth of around $400 million.  It’s impossible not to conclude that her father’s rigid management of her affairs, taking of her profits, and obsessive control have not cost Britney tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.  There are reports that Ms. Spears refuses to perform again until the conservatorship is removed.

Also disturbing are the reports about Mr. Spears himself.  In 2020, Ms. Spears’ own mother, Lynne, said that her father claimed Britney was  “a racehorse who has to be handled like one.”  The Times claims he wasn’t even particularly interested in Ms. Spears’ affairs before he saw an opportunity for a conservatorship.  After drifting in and out of her life for a decade, he started taking an active role in 2007.  “Mr. Spears reappeared for what he and his ex-wife, Lynne, viewed as an urgent rescue mission,” the Times wrote. “He prayed and fasted before he petitioned a judge for a temporary conservatorship of Ms. Spears, Lynne wrote in her memoir, [even though] the singer stressed that she did not want her father in charge, a lawyer she consulted at the time has said.”  There are also indications he drank heavily and was generally abusive, “verbal abuse, abandonment [and] erratic behavior” is how Lynne Spears put it in her memoir.

One wonders how such a man was placed in charge of Ms. Spears’ affairs and paid handsomely for it.  One might also wonder how one of the most successful and popular performers in recording history can be controlled by a conservatorship in the first place.  Technically, Ms. Spears is under both a guardianship and a conservatorship; the guardianship is for her personal affairs, the conservatorship for her finances.  According to LawHelp.org, a guardian “is a person appointed by the court to make healthcare and other mostly non-monetary decisions for someone who cannot make these types of decisions because of an injury, illness, or disability” and a conservator “is a person appointed by the court to take care of someone’s finances when he or she cannot make these types of decisions because of an illness, injury, or disability.”  The examples they provide for when these arrangements are required include someone who is in a coma, mentally challenged, has Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, has had a stroke, or has suffered a brain injury.

It is difficult to see how any of these apply to Ms. Spears.  Based on everything we know, she exhibited erratic behavior over a brief period while going through an incredibly stressful divorce, but if everyone in the entertainment industry who acted erratically was subject to a conservatorship, there would be no one left in Hollywood.  Between the initial temporary arrangement and the permanent one, Ms. Spears was competent enough to perform, plan, and win three MTV Music Awards.  Since the permanent one has been in place, she was capable of earning a reported $350,000 per night for a residency in Las Vegas, not an easy schedule to maintain by any means, and has released three new albums plus several box sets and compilations.  Obviously, I cannot speak for her mental state, but these don’t strike me as the achievements of a woman that lacks competence and is incapable of managing her own affairs.

In my humble opinion, her father, her lawyer, and Judge Goetz have a lot to answer for.  Guardianships and conservatorships are supposed to be a last resort for people who are truly incompetent, not just whacky or going through a tough period.   For obvious reasons, we are not supposed to make it easy to strip people of their Constitutional rights and autonomy in their own affairs.  Here, however, it appears Ms. Spears was almost casually condemned to a life that was not her own.  The process that allowed this to happen must be investigated and reformed.  A few questions that need be answered:  How can a single judge wield this kind of power with no simple appeals process for the subject of the conservatorship?  How can this kind of power be wielded without even speaking directly to the subject of the conservatorship?  What mechanism is in place to monitor these conservatorships and ensure they are truly benefiting those involved?  How can an abusive person that the subject of the conservatorship wanted nothing to do with possibly be put in charge?  I am sure there are others, many others.

I understand that many people might find it difficult to sympathize with a multimillionaire pop star who ruled the charts once upon a time.  How we adjudicate issues of competence and involuntary revocation of constitutional rights and civil liberties isn’t limited to conservatorships, however.  Consider the infamous Parkland shooter, the killer of 17 people in cold blood at Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Nikolas Cruz had been a troubled young man for years with a documented history of violent and suspicious behavior since middle school.  He was transferred between six schools in three years.  He had threatened other students.  He was expelled, but let back into school even though he brought weapons and posted disturbing videos threatening to harm himself and others.  The police were called to his home several times.  He was recommended for involuntary confinement at least twice, and his behavior was so erratic even the FBI was tipped off about his potential to commit violence.

Ultimately, the experts concluded he was “at low risk of harming himself or others” and none of his rights were taken away.  He came to school freely that tragic day and slaughtered his fellow students.  How can our system allow draconian tactics against a misbehaving pop princess, yet do nothing to protect our children from an obvious, documented menace?  In others words, a judge felt it was appropriate to throw the book at Britney, but no one did anything to Mr. Cruz.  Inquiring minds should certainly wonder why.

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