After over a decade, Britney Spears is free. Almost.
A Los Angeles judge suspended the conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, on Wednesday. The 13-year arrangement had allowed him to control almost every facet of her life: her career, finances, personal life. In the next few months, her case will be revisited, likely putting a permanent end to her conservatorship. Now disability rights advocates are looking to what comes next.
Spears’s case has brought unprecedented attention to the issue of conservatorship, known as guardianship in some states. Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a disability rights program attorney for the ACLU, has been one of the advocates leading the charge for reform.
“When Britney gets out [of her conservatorship], we still have an enormous amount to do to change systems,” she said. “The setup can’t be that if you’re a pop star, you might get out but everyone else is left with business as usual.”
Guardianship reform advocates’ efforts seem to be gaining traction in Congress. Brennan-Krohn testified this week at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on federal conservatorship reform. At the hearing, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz both expressed sympathy for Spears’s struggle under conservatorship and stressed the need for reform.
“I count myself emphatically in the Free Britney camp,” Cruz said in his opening statement. But his interest extends beyond Spears: “Every so often, an individual case of injustice captures the nation and opens our eyes to issues that are by no means unique to the individual, that had previously remained hidden to the public.”
Nicholas Clause, a 28-year-old man from Huntington, Indiana, also testified during the hearing. Clause is not a politician, a pop star or a legal scholar. But like Spears, he has been under unwanted conservatorship. He currently works full time as a forklift operator, but has also worked as a welder and a biotechnician. In 2011, Clause sustained a brain injury after a car accident. His parents initially sought conservatorship to help manage his personal injury settlement, but Clause did not realize how many rights he would have to cede in doing so.
In the years after his accident, Clause worked full time, married and had a baby girl. The conservatorship meant he had to ask his parents’ permission to buy formula and diapers for his daughter, and that he could not make his own doctor’s appointments. In 2018, Clause asked to be freed from conservatorship, but his parents refused. With help from Disability Rights Indiana, Clause was able to regain his civil rights in January 2020. “If they hadn’t accepted my case and offered to represent me free-of-charge, I’m not sure I would have ever had a path out,” he testified.
There has been legislative movement towards conservatorship reform. Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey have reintroduced bipartisan legislation to federally track data about conservatorship, as well as provide legal support to people under conservatorships who want to end them. Brennan-Krohn stressed the importance of federal data collection, one of the key features of the Guardianship Accountability Act. AARP estimates that about 1.3 million Americans are currently under conservatorship. However, state record keeping is inconsistent, and it is difficult to know for certain.
“We don’t even know how many people are under guardianships and conservatorships in this country, let alone their age, their race, their experiences,” she said. “We need data.”
The Guardianship Accountability Act died in committee when it was first introduced in 2019, but Collins and Casey are optimistic about its prospects this time around.
“What started as a well-known figure in American pop culture allows the spotlight to be shown on some people whose circumstances might go unexamined if we didn’t have this focus,” Casey told NPR. Casey also praised the bipartisan support for the bill. “Everything’s difficult in the Senate, but it’s enormously helpful to have a Republican co-sponsor when you start,” he said.
Regardless of the legislative outcome, Brennan-Krohn thinks Britney Spears’s case will make a lasting impact.
“This case has been very important because it has raised the profile of these issues enormously. People who might never have thought about these things before, who aren’t in the disability rights or civil liberties space, are finally realizing how harmful [conservatorship] can be,” Brennan-Krohn said.