As the #FreeBritney movement catapulted the nation’s attention to the once-obscure issue of conservatorship, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Tuesday casting the pop star’s case as representative of a much larger disability rights issue.
The problem, senators across the political aisle agreed, goes far beyond Britney Spears.
“The Britney Spears conservatorship has brought to light real issues with conservatorship law that should shock every American,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in introductory remarks, filled with uncharacteristic praise for his Democratic colleagues. “If the conservatorship process can deprive someone like Miss Spears—someone with immense celebrity, immense wealth, immense material success—of her fundamental liberties, then what chance does the average American have?”
That sentiment was common among members of the committee, whose Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) played a video of more common cases.
The committee titled the hearing:”Toxic Conservatorships: The Need for Reform.” Witness testimony began with a man personally affected by the issue.
“In July of 2011, I was in a terrible car accident that left me with a traumatic brain injury, headaches and memory loss,” 28-year-old father Nicholas Clouse testified. “Thinking that someone might take advantage of me if I were to receive a large sum of money from a personal energy injury lawsuit, my parents convinced me they should become my legal guardian.”
That decision proved fateful. Clouse said he met the woman who would become his wife some two years later, when the symptoms of his brain injury had markedly improved.
The couple got engaged on Valentine’s Day in 2016.
“In December of 2016 I became a father, but in many ways my parents still treated me like a child,” Clouse said. “I had no control over the paychecks I earned and had to get permission from my stepfather to buy diapers and formula for my daughter.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, and many others, have cast the Spears case as a disability rights issue, and the head of its Disability Rights Project Zoe Brennan–Krohn echoed those sentiments before the Senate.
“Britney Spears’ extraordinarily high-profile battle against conservatorship has launched this issue into the public’s attention,” said Brennan-Krohn, who took part in the successfull battle allowing Spears to hire her own attorney. “But while Britney Spears herself is unique – for her fame, her wealth, and her talent – her conservatorship case is not. Spears is one of an estimated 1.3 million adults in this country under guardianship or conservatorship.”
Morgan Whitlatch, the legal director for the group Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, told senators that they should urge the Department of Justice to issue guidance on the issue to avoid disability discrimination.
In a recent phone interview with Law&Crime, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Professor Jasmine E. Harris also called for further transparency from the courts and said that the current opacity surrounding conservatorships reflects stigma surrounding disabilities.
In that sense, the professor said, Spears’s highly public approach shakes up the status quo.
“She said, ‘I want to talk about this,’” Harris noted. “So I think there’s a real disconnect between what we perceive as society to be public and private information—and the need to be very paternalistic in the disability context.”
(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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