Programming Note: Preet is off today as he is immersed in the ongoing Senate impeachment trial. For Preet’s thoughts on the trial, follow him on Twitter. And for a deeper dive into the proceedings, listen to Third Degree, the new daily podcast hosted by Elie Honig.
By Sam Ozer-Staton
Britney Spears is back in the news. The pop icon and tabloid fixture of the nineties and early aughts is the subject of a just-released New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.”
The film critically re-examines the way that the media has treated Spears, who rose to international pop stardom at just 17 years old. But it also investigates something far less frivolous than the usual tabloid fodder: a court-sanctioned “conservatorship” that has controlled Spears’s life for the past 13 years.
Spears entered into the unusual legal arrangement in 2008, when her father, Jamie Spears, petitioned the courts for emergency “temporary conservatorship” over his daughter. Earlier that year, Britney had twice been placed in psychiatric hold. The judge granted the order.
Spears was 26 then. She is 39 now. And she remains under conservatorship.
But what exactly is a conservatorship? And are Spears’s legions of fans — many of whom have mounted a #FreeBritney movement on social media — justified in their outrage?
“Sometimes known as a guardianship, a conservatorship is a complex legal arrangement typically reserved for the old, ill or infirm,” Julia Jacobs, a New York Times reporter, summarized this week. “A representative is designated to manage the person’s affairs and estate if that person is deemed to be unable to take care of themselves or vulnerable to outside influence or manipulation.”
Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney at the ACLU, told CBS News that conservatorships are too often granted as a “first resort” when an individual experiences mental health crises or age-related disabilities. According to Brennan-Krohn, Britney is “one of the untold thousands nationwide” under a conservatorship. While Britney’s case may be unique because of her celebrity status, she added: “It is also interesting because it is, in some ways, quite typical. We see across the country that people get into conservatorships and guardianships that they can’t get out of.”
The specific details of conservatorships are confidential, but a 2016 Times investigative report shed some light on the unusual nature of Spears’s situation. In many states, “guardianship” refers to a court-appointed individual who covers personal matters, and “conservatorship” refers to an individual who deals with financial ones. But California allows for both of those roles to be occupied by the same person. According to the Times report, under the arrangement reached in 2008, all aspects of Britney’s life — ranging from day-to-day purchases and travel plans, to larger financial agreements and estate planning — fell under her father’s control.
In 2019, Jamie Spears temporarily ceded the “personal” aspect of the conservatorship to Jodi Montgomery, Britney’s “personal care manager” who now oversees her mental health treatment and approves her visitors. But Jamie, along with family lawyer Andrew Wallet, continue to oversee Britney’s estate. And they haven’t come cheap. According to that Times report, Jamie took home an annual salary of $130,000 and earned 1.5% of the gross revenues from Britney’s lucrative Las Vegas residency.
Now, Jamie wants full control back. In August, Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, argued in a court filing that the pop singer “strongly opposed” her father as conservator. “Without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future,” Ingham wrote, “Britney would like Ms. Montgomery’s appointment as conservator of her person to be made permanent.”
But in November, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ruled against immediately removing Jamie Spears from Britney’s conservatorship. In response, Britney’s lawyer said his client is “afraid of her father” and “will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” The case is scheduled to return to the courtroom today, and the hearing is expected to address Jamie Spears’s role in the future of Britney’s conservatorship.
In the days since “Framing Britney Spears” premiered, several celebrities have joined the #FreeBritney social media chorus, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler.
The Britney saga has also ignited a national conversation about conservatorships. Were you familiar with the concept? In broad terms, what kinds of guardrails would need to be put in place to ensure that conservatorships are only used when absolutely necessary?
Write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts or reply to this email.
— Listen to Doing Justice, the six-part narrative podcast based on Preet’s bestselling book of the same name. Episode three, “God Forbid,” is now available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t miss the bonus episode for Insiders, where Preet discusses the episode with CNN global affairs analyst Bianna Golodryga.
— Listen to Third Degree, the new impeachment debrief podcast from CAFE’s own Elie Honig. Each day of the impeachment trial, Elie will brief you on everything you need to know—what just happened, and what to watch for—in 10 minutes or less. The most recent episode recaps the second day of the trial and looks forward to Day 3.
— Listen to Note from Joyce, a new offering for CAFE insiders featuring commentary from Joyce Vance, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Her latest note, “Families Belong Together,” is about the moral imperative to reunite families torn apart by the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
— Listen to Stay Tuned, “Trumpeachment,” where Preet is joined by Atlantic staff writer David Frum. And don’t miss the bonus for Insiders, where Frum discusses his naturalization ceremony, and what Canadians really think of Donald Trump.
— Listen to CAFE Insider, “Trial By Ire,” where Preet and Anne break down the arguments made by each side’s lawyers in the pre-trial briefs of the Senate impeachment trial. A sample of the episode is available at CAFE.com.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead House Impeachment Manager, has emerged as a star of the impeachment proceedings by delivering a clear and compelling case for conviction. He is leading the impeachment team despite going through unimaginable personal tragedy, having just lost his son a little over a month ago. Follow him: @repraskin.
That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— Edited by Tamara Sepper
The CAFE Team:
Tamara Sepper, Adam Waller, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, David Tatasciore, Matthew Billy, and Nat Weiner.