Law experts: Britney Spears’ legal drama is rife with paradoxes

Britney Spears at the Clive Davis and The Recording Academy Pre-Grammy Gala in Beverly Hills, California in 2017. Photo: Invision/The Associated Press

 

By Michael R. Malone

Britney Spears at the Clive Davis and The Recording Academy Pre-Grammy Gala in Beverly Hills, California in 2017. Photo: Invision/The Associated Press

 

Law experts: Britney Spears’ legal drama is rife with paradoxes

By Michael R. Malone
University of Miami family law professors explore the reported conditions of the conservatorship—the legal framework created purportedly to protect the pop star—that Spears and some of her ‘Free Britney’ supporters claim is ‘abusive’ and ‘traumatizing.’

Law professors Zanita Fenton and Bernard Perlmutter, both specialists in family law, highlighted a litany of anomalies relating to the Britney Spears legal drama that is playing out in the press. The celebrity pop star has sought to end—or at least alter—the conservatorship that has regulated her private life and finances since it was imposed in 2008 when she was 26. 

On June 23, Spears appeared before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny and spoke publicly for the first time about the conservatorship. In the hearing—which was broadcast in the courtroom and livestreamed—she asked for her father to be removed as a co-conservator, alleging that the overly strict conditions were “abusive.” On June 30, the judge denied that request—at least for now. 

University law experts explained that a conservatorship, the preferred term in California, and guardianship, preferred in Florida, are essentially the same and refer to a set of conditions created by the court to benefit and protect a ward—generally a minor—deemed incapable of caring for themselves. 

“This whole situation is full of loads of paradox,” said Fenton, an expert in family, race, and constitutional law. She noted that when the conservatorship was imposed, according to media reports, there may have been good reason for the benefit of Spears and to protect her from her own erratic behavior. 

“She had a breakdown, had cut off all her hair, and there was a lot of drama surrounding Britney with her and her ex-husband and children—it was a bit of a mess,” Fenton recalled. 

Yet in terms of the recent allegations and publicity, Fenton highlighted that most of the critical facets of the case are sealed and unknown—as they should be. She critiqued the “fish-tank view” of the case that has generated speculation and misinformation. 

“There is so much we don’t know—about the diagnosis or the cause of her breakdown, whether it was temporary or long-term or can be handled with medication,” Fenton said. “This is the stuff that’s not making it into the paper, which is fine because that is personal and private medical information.” 

“This is a one-of-a-kind case,” commented Perlmutter, whose students represent clients in guardianship proceedings in the law school’s Children and Youth Law Clinic. “There’s nobody like Britney Spears in the annals of guardianship other than maybe Michael Jackson, who, by the way, never had a guardian appointed over him—which might have been beneficial. 

“In Florida and in every other state, in order to establish a guardianship over an adult with the approval of the court, it’s not just a mere allegation that a person has a mental health incapacity—you have to prove it, and you have to give notice to the alleged incapacitated person that a process has been initiated to take away their liberties and to appoint a guardian to make financial and personal decisions for them,” he explained. 

Emphasizing that she was not privy to court records, Fenton dismissed the notion that the conservatorship was imposed or continues because of Spears’s alleged alcoholism or mental health issues. 

“If we imposed a conservatorship on everybody in society who’s an alcoholic or who had drug dependency problems, we’d have very few people on the streets,” she said, adding “and we have lots of people who have mental health issues and, as a society, we leave them hanging out there on their own.” 

Most troubling for Fenton is the report that the conservatorship obliges Spears, who has two sons through her previous marriage with Kevin Federline, to continue to wear an intrauterine device that prevents her from having more children. 

“This has effectively restricted her constitutional reproductive rights and, with all the other stuff that surrounds this case, smacks of misogyny and the old-time stereotyping of women and their ability to take care of themselves,” Fenton said. 

She cited the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Buck vs. Bell that set a legal precedent that states could sterilize inmates of public institutions. “The ruling permitted the mass scale sterilization of poor white unmarried women who happened to get pregnant on the grounds that it was insane for someone to get pregnant without a man to take care of them,” Fenton explained. 

Perlmutter highlighted the same case in noting the peculiarities of the case. 

“Scholars and the public alike are concerned by the report of this restriction of her personal freedom,” he said. “The report that her father, as conservator, has been essentially able to veto the most intimate of personal choices about her body and her ability to have more children strikes at the heart of fundamental constitutional protections.” 

In overturning the case a few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to make decisions about procreation was such an intimate and private matter that only with the  strictest scrutiny could an individual’s highly personal procreation choices be made by a guardian or the court, Perlmutter explained. “This question has raised a lot of concerns about the abuses that are inherent in invading the private choices made by an adult about her right to use or not use contraception and whether to have more children,” he added. 

Perlmutter emphasized that, for the conservatorship or guardianship to continue, reporting requirements must be met that relate to finances and to the state of the conservatee. Health records and doctors’ reports are critical. The onus, he pointed out, is on those who created the framework to substantiate that the ward’s condition remains unchanged. 

“There are different avenues for having a less restrictive option, even after a guardianship or conservatorship has been in place for a decade or longer,” he said. “The court doesn’t let the person languish at the mercy of the presumptively beneficent conservator—you have to make sure that they’re looking out for the best interests of the person whose liberty has been removed by the stroke of a pen.” 

Fenton pointed to another glaring irregularity in the case. 

“The biggest reason this is happening to Britney is because she’s got loads of money,” Fenton said. “We don’t often hear about wealth-based discrimination in that direction, normally that term is used when you’re doing inappropriate things to poor people. Here the stakes are so high, and everybody wants their cut.” 

“While I have sympathy for her and certainly don’t think this should be happening, hers is quite a gilded cage. And in this time that we’re living for some to be chanting ‘Free Britney’ feels like such a mockery of the current prison system,” she added. 

Fenton noted that there are no allegations that the conservator has mismanaged Spears’s funds and that all indications are that, in fact, her estate is intact. 

The judge in this case is guided by the California legislature’s guidelines and statutory requirements and will decide based on points of evidence that Fenton suggested would include doctors’ evaluations and information culled from those handling her finances and personal managers who would speak to her mental well-being. 

Even the fact that she has been working and performing is not sufficient in itself, she said. “That may be a testament to how super creative she is. But creative types can become something on stage and that’s not necessarily an indication of how they deal with their lives,” Fenton added.

The professor pointed to the fact that Spears has been a public figure and pop star nearly all her life—she launched her career at 12 when she joined Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club. 

“That’s why I don’t want to make a prognostication about her mental health—the problem could be as simple as all the attention she’s had her entire life,” Fenton said. “There are lots of examples of people who just can’t handle that, and most of them are dead from drug overdoses. That might be the best justification for the conservatorship, because we’d like for this young woman to stay alive,” she said. 

“Though that, too, seems so unfair to say,” Fenton added. “Britney is an adult and her own person.”