Last night, my wife and I sat down to watch the Britney Spears documentary produced by The New York Times called “Framing Britney Spears.” I must admit that I expected to see some light entertainment, enjoying the escapism that our celebrity culture often provides us.
What I did not expect was my actual reaction: embarrassment and outrage. After all, in this era of economic inequality and democracy in jeopardy, can the plight of a rich, beautiful, young star be all that salient?
In fact, it is. I was so upset after watching the documentary that I had trouble falling asleep.
I’m not surprised that Justin Timberlake, after watching the documentary, felt obliged to apologize to Spears. His behavior in the wake of their break-up, as detailed in the program, was atrocious. He embraced the privilege that our misogynistic culture grants young men like him. It was Britney’s “fault,” to quote Diane Sawyer, that this young couple’s relationship ended, breaking poor Justin’s heart.
It would be too easy for me to simply cast aspersions at Timberlake, though. I was horrified to realize as I watched the filmmakers document Spears’s history, that I had bought into the sexist narrative surrounding her career. She seemed to have gone crazy when she partied with Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan, shaved her head, and attacked a videographer’s van with an umbrella. I lacked the empathy to realize at the time that she was a young mother denied access to her children and hounded by a relentless media. When viewed in the context made explicit in the documentary, she was at her wit’s end, behaving quite rationally under the circumstances.
After all, when Matt Lauer asked her what it would take for the paparazzi to stop harassing her, she tearfully responded “I don’t know.” It appears that her shaving her head was a desperate attempt to get that privacy, especially when she was dealing with personal problems like her ex-husband and the courts denying her access to her young children.
As a result, I too must apologize to Spears, as well as all women, for buying into a misogynistic narrative and tsk-tsking that crazy Britney Spears as she torpedoed her stratospheric career.
While I believe Timberlake, as well as countless others like me, do owe Spears an apology, there is one group whose behavior is particularly egregious from whom no amends is forthcoming: the lawyers. As we watched the documentary, I repeatedly said to my wife that “I’m embarrassed to be a lawyer.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, for twelve years, since she publicly lost her temper in the wake of the divorce court limiting her access to her children, Spears has been subjected to a court-ordered “conservatorship,” under which her father is paid to control her life and her finances.
The concept of a conservatorship is an old legal arrangement in which a court appoints someone to take control of an incompetent person’s finances and personal affairs. The key point being that the person subjected to the conservatorship must be incapable of managing their own life or finances. You may disagree with the choices a person makes, but that is not enough to establish a conservatorship.
At an earlier point in my career, I served as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, essentially the attorney appointed to represent the interest of the individual for whom conservatorship is sought. In each case, the individuals were severely disabled, and to the extent they understood what was happening, they supported the conservatorship and trusted the person who would be managing their affairs.
At least here in Michigan, where I practice, the law of conservatorship requires the court to treat the interests of the individual as paramount. The court must consider what is in the “best interests” of the person. The interests of the conservator, the individual’s family and friends, and even society must take a backseat to those interests. After all, we live in a legal system that supposedly protects the rights of the individual above all else.
Clearly, that is not what has happened in Britney Spears’s case. For some unknown reason, the court has disregarded the stated interests of Spears while prioritizing her father’s interests and her earning potential above all else. It is not an exaggeration to say that Spears is treated as a slave, or as my wife put it, a prize-winning horse whose only role is to generate income for its owners.
When Spears asked the court not to appoint her father as her conservator, the court should have acceded to that wish. Even if Spears is incompetent — which is at best questionable — the fact that she does not trust her conservator should have been disqualifying. The fact that he is fighting so hard to keep control of her finances and her life demonstrates his conflict of interest, another disqualifying factor. Therefore, even if the court felt that a conservator was called for in Spears’s case, it could have appointed any other qualified individual or institution who would not create such conflict.
Instead, the court has continued her father’s dominance over Spears. It appears that the court has considered her father’s interest in continuing to earn money as Spears’s conservator. Under the law, however, that consideration is irrelevant in a conservatorship proceeding.
While the state courts have taken a bizarre position, failing to even consider Spears’s clearly-stated wishes, and while California state law, as explained by one of her father’s attorneys, puts the burden on Spears to prove that she should no longer be subjected to this conservatorship, state law is not paramount here. The U.S. constitution likely has something to say about this matter.
According to the supremacy clause of the constitution, the U.S. constitution and U.S. courts have supremacy over state law and state courts when there is a conflict. The constitution also bans “involuntary servitude” in the 13th amendment. As presented in the documentary, Spears is being forced to perform to generate income for the “conservatorship estate” whose beneficiaries include her father and all the attorneys litigating the matter. If that isn’t involuntary servitude, I don’t know what is.
As a result, a legal strategy for Spears might be to file a habeas corpus petition in the federal courts. Habeas corpus is a legal concept that means “you have your body.” In other words, your body belongs to you, not the state, society or anyone else. This is the kind of legal action prisoners pursue whose federally-guaranteed rights have been violated by the state. In this case, such an action seems warranted.
I can’t understand why the state court judges have failed to consider Spears’s best interests in their consideration of this case. That is what the law mandates of them. The motivation of her father and his attorneys is more transparent: money. Her father, who has been a ne’er do well his entire life is making a fortune off of her conservatorship, and the attorneys fighting to continue that legal status have been handsomely rewarded.
Attorneys, however, do have ethical guidelines. The greedy behavior of Spears’s father’s attorneys instead demonstrate why so many people hate lawyers. Indeed, after watching the documentary, I was embarrassed to admit that I am a lawyer too.