Britney Spears’s conservatorship hearing — the first in the case since July — has gotten underway.
Her fans began arriving more than hour before its scheduled start, but Ms. Spears is not expected at the hearing, presided over by Judge Brenda Penny at a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. As conservatee, Ms. Spears is not required to appear at the regular status hearings in the long-running case and has typically chosen not to. She did attend the June 23 hearing, when she spoke publicly at length for the first time about the conservatorship, calling it abusive and calling for it to end without a psychiatric evaluation. But even in that instance she appeared remotely.
Unlike that hearing, during which live audio from the courtroom was available online to account for coronavirus protocols, today’s hearing will not be publicly accessible via stream. (In addition to shifting Covid-19 precautions, Judge Penny expressed dismay at audio of Ms. Spears’s testimony being shared online, despite her orders against recording it.) Limited members of the public and the press have been allowed to attend in person.
The lawyers on the case — often in the double-digits, thanks to the number of parties now involved — may attend in person or remotely by video call or phone, as can their clients, including Lynne and James Spears, the singer’s parents.
Despite the fact that some of the lawyers involved, including those for Ms. Spears’s father, are arguing against her stated wishes, the legal bills for the case are generally charged to Ms. Spears’s estate. Representatives for the singer and her mother have raised this issue with the court, calling some of the fees excessive.
Just one of the lawyers who has been involved in the case, Samuel D. Ingham III, Ms. Spears’s court-appointed counsel who was replaced in July, earned more than $3 million in the 13 years he represented her. Ms. Spears is not known to have questioned Mr. Ingham’s fees.
Since Britney Spears spoke out in court on June 23, when she called the conservatorship “abusive” and said she wants it to end, there has been a flurry of filings in the case. These are some of the questions that could be decided by the probate judge, Brenda Penny, on Wednesday. The hearing is set to begin at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Will Jamie Spears Be Removed as Conservator? In July, less than two weeks after Mathew S. Rosengart was approved as Ms. Spears’s lawyer, he moved to have James P. Spears, the singer’s father, removed from the conservatorship.
In an additional filing last week, Mr. Rosengart wrote: “It is clear that Mr. Spears cannot be permitted to hold a position of control over his daughter for another day,” adding, “Every day Mr. Spears clings to his post is another day of anguish and harm to his daughter.”
Ms. Spears’s lawyer has moved to replace her father on a temporary basis with John Zabel, a certified public accountant in California who has worked in Hollywood, “until the conservatorship is completely and inevitably terminated this fall.”
Mr. Spears maintained in filings this week that while there is “no adequate basis” for his suspension or removal as conservator of the estate, the court should instead focus on terminating the conservatorship — something that is now “opposed by no one” and should take priority. (His lawyers also argued that Mr. Zabel “does not appear to have the background and experience required to take over a complex, $60 million” estate.)
Will the Conservatorship Be Terminated Altogether? At this point, Ms. Spears has not officially filed to end the conservatorship, although her lawyer said last week that she “fully consents” to its termination.
In a twist this month, lawyers for Mr. Spears, who had long maintained that the conservatorship was voluntary and necessary, filed to end it, citing the singer’s stated wishes and recent shows of independence: “If Ms. Spears wants to terminate the conservatorship and believes that she can handle her own life, Mr. Spears believes that she should get that chance.”
But experts have said that terminating a conservatorship without a medical evaluation — as Ms. Spears and now her father have asked for — is unlikely, and there is no public record of the judge calling for a psychiatric evaluation recently.
In his filing last week, Mr. Rosengart said that in addition to Ms. Spears’s support for terminating the conservatorship, the singer’s personal conservator since 2019, Jodi Montgomery, backed it as well, “subject to proper transition and asset protection.”
Will Mr. Spears and Others Be Investigated Further? Following Ms. Spears’s comments in June — in which she said she had been forced to take medication and was unable to remove a birth-control device — her father asked the court to investigate the claims, denying his own culpability and instead calling into question the actions of Ms. Montgomery and others.
Mr. Rosengart has since asked for a future hearing on outstanding financial issues involving the conservatorship, calling mismanagement of Ms. Spears’s estate by her father “evident and ongoing.” He said that in August, Mr. Spears had been served a request for discovery and to sit for a sworn deposition, before he filed to end the conservatorship.
They began showing up more than an hour before the hearing was set to begin.
A man in platform heels and a pink “Free Britney” cape. Nearly 100 protesters, many in crop tops, wigs and eye-popping makeup, gathered outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in advance of a highly anticipated court proceeding hearing in Britney Spears’s 13-year conservatorship.
The spot has become the de facto hub for the Free Britney movement. Since 2019, online chatter among Britney Spears fans cast doubt on her well-being, after she abruptly canceled a Las Vegas residency and disappeared for weeks from public life.
A handful of protesters began showing up at the courthouse then. But the crowds have grown, especially since June 23, when Ms. Spears spoke publicly at a hearing about feeling abused by the conservatorship.
Mona Montgomery, 79, of Glendale, Calif., a retired conservatorship lawyer, heard a radio broadcast of the testimony in June.
“It was the sadness and articulation of Britney Spears saying everything I already knew about conservatorships. I was so happy to hear the truth coming out on the radio,” she said.
“It’s an underground profession, helping people who are falsely incarcerated. But if Britney could open up the doors, it would be great for everybody,” added Ms. Montgomery, who described having to go into care facilities and negotiate with nurses on behalf of victims of conservatorship abuse.
Supporters on Wednesday had come from spots around the country. One sign read, “I traveled from PHL to LAX to use my voice for those who are silenced.”
Alex Garcia, 28, made the five-hour drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles last night hoping for vindication for the #FreeBritney movement.
“We’re not going anywhere until she is free,” he said.
Shelby Frohmadder, 30, flew in from Texas yesterday. She’s working on a documentary on Britney Spears for her YouTube channel.
“I’m very hopeful today’s the day either Jamie Spears is finally removed or the whole thing is terminated altogether,” she said.
Lauren Herstik and
At Wednesday’s hearing and in the legal proceedings likely to follow, one person has the power to decide whether Britney Spears will remain in the conservatorship: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny.
Judge Penny took over Ms. Spears’s case in 2016, after the judge that instituted the conservatorship eight years earlier, Reva Goetz, retired from the bench.
At first, Judge Penny presided over the case as a court commissioner, a legal professional who can be appointed to adjudicate cases as a judge would. Then in 2018, Judge Penny, a Democrat, was appointed to the bench by former California Governor Jerry Brown.
Presiding over the case, in which she reviews the legal apparatus that has managed the singer’s finances, health care and personal life for 13 years, has given the judge a higher profile than most Superior Court judges, but she has declined to be interviewed about her role, citing judicial ethical requirements.
Judge Penny, who received her law degree from the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, worked for several years at a firm in Pasadena, Calif., before practicing independently. At Los Angeles County Superior Court, she worked as assistant supervising probate attorney before she was promoted to court commissioner and then judge.
In the Spears case, Judge Penny has reviewed attempts to remove the singer’s father, James P. Spears, from his position as conservator of Ms. Spears’s estate, a position in which he wields considerable power over her finances.
But she has declined to remove him so far.
The pressure on the court to delve more deeply into Ms. Spears’s concerns grew over the summer, though, after Ms. Spears made a defiant speech in the courtroom in which she pleaded for more autonomy, Judge Penny granted her the ability to choose her own lawyer, which Ms. Spears had not been allowed to do under the strictures of the conservatorship.
But she denied a request from Ms. Spears’s new lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart, to move up the date of a hearing on whether to remove or suspend Mr. Spears, which angered some of Ms. Spears’s fans.
Some members of the #FreeBritney movement, who believe the legal process should be moving faster to eliminate the conservatorship, suggest that fans file complaints against the judge to the California Commission on Judicial Performance. On social media, Judge Penny has been the subject of threats and vitriol, as have others involved in upholding the legal arrangement.
Still, Judge Penny tried in June, after the singer’s impassioned plea to regain control of her life, to assure Ms. Spears that she empathized with her.
“I just want to tell you that I certainly am sensitive to everything that you said and how you’re feeling,” Judge Penny said, “and I know that it took a lot of courage for you to say everything you had to say today.”
When Britney Spears asked the court in June to be freed from the conservatorship that has controlled her money and personal life for 13 years, she made it clear that she did not want to undergo a psychological evaluation first.
A mental health assessment is usually the pole star in a constellation of evidence that a judge considers in deciding whether to restore independence.
Its underlying purpose is to determine whether the conditions that led to the imposition of the conservatorship have stabilized or been resolved.
Judges tend to authorize conservatorships for one of three broad categories: a severe psychiatric breakdown; a chronic, worsening condition like dementia; or an intellectual or physical disability that critically impairs function.
Ms. Spears’s father, James P. Spears, agreed earlier this summer to eventually step down from his own role in the conservatorship, and then filed a petition earlier this month asking the court to “now seriously consider whether this conservatorship is no longer required.”
Annette Swain, a Los Angeles psychologist who does neuropsychological assessments, said that because someone doesn’t always show good judgment, it doesn’t mean they lack capacity. “We all can make bad decisions at many points in our lives,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that we should have our rights taken away.”
The evaluation process, which uneasily melds mental health criteria with legal standards, illustrates why the exit from strict oversight is difficult and rare. State laws are often ambiguous. And their application can vary from county to county, judge to judge, case to case.
Bugging. Restrictions on spending. Failed efforts to hire her own lawyer.
In recent days, three new documentaries have come forward with revelations about the degree to which the conservatorship has exerted control over Britney Spears’s life for 13 years — and the extent to which she sought to regain that control early on, without success.
On Friday, for example, The New York Times released, “Controlling Britney Spears,” which detailed how Ms. Spears’s father and the security firm he hired to protect her ran an intense surveillance apparatus that monitored her communications and secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom.
Ms. Spears’s lawyer called for an investigation, writing in a court filing this week that her father had “crossed unfathomable lines,” further supporting the need to suspend him as her conservator immediately.
But will the court take up those issues specifically?
Early on Tuesday, Netflix started streaming its own film, “Britney Vs Spears,” which used confidential documents and interviews with people who were close with Ms. Spears to detail the singer’s strong objections to the legal arrangement that went on to rule her life, as well as her attempts to escape it.
A third documentary, CNN’s “Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle For Freedom,” aired on Sunday, and included interviews with some of the singer’s friends and former employees. Dan George, who managed the promotional tour for Ms. Spears’s “Circus” album, says in the film that Ms. Spears “could only read Christian books” and “her phone was monitored.”
The Times documentary includes an interview with Alex Vlasov, a former employee of a security firm, Black Box, that was hired by Mr. Spears to protect Ms. Spears. Mr. Vlasov, who worked as an executive assistant and operations and cybersecurity manager, said the firm would monitor his daughter’s communications through other devices that were signed into her iCloud account and share them with her father.
The surreptitious audio recording, he said, included her interactions and conversations with her boyfriend, children. (It was unclear whether the court had approved these strategies, and both Mr. Spears and the security firm said in statements that their actions were within the law.)
The Netflix film, by the filmmaker Erin Lee Carr and featuring the journalist Jenny Eliscu, reported that, very early in the conservatorship, Ms. Spears had attempted to hire her own lawyer to help her escape the strict limitations of the conservatorship.
Ms. Spears is heard on a 2009 voice mail addressing a lawyer, who is not identified, seeking reassurance that her effort to end the conservatorship would not jeopardize her right to time with her two sons. At the time, about a year into the conservatorship, Ms. Spears was represented by a court-appointed lawyer after a judge determined that she did not have the capacity to choose her own.
Ms. Eliscu, who said that she knew Ms. Spears after profiling her twice for Rolling Stone, recounts a time when Sam Lufti, Ms. Spears’s friend and sometime manager, asked her to surreptitiously present court papers for the singer to sign; the papers stated that Ms. Spears’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, was not “advocating adequately on her behalf.” Ms. Eliscu said she met Ms. Spears in the bathroom of a hotel and the singer signed the document, but her wishes were not granted.
Ms. Spears was represented by Mr. Ingham until July, when a judge ruled that she could choose her own lawyer.
Britney Spears first publicly addressed her struggles with the conservatorship in June at a dramatic court hearing in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized,” Ms. Spears said in an emotional 23-minute address by phone that was broadcast in the courtroom and, as she insisted, to the public. “I just want my life back.”
Ms. Spears told the court that she had felt forced by the conservatorship to perform against her will.
The people who did this to me should not get away and to be able to walk away so easily. To recap: I was on tour in 2018. I was forced to do. My management said if I don’t do this tour, I will have to find an attorney, and, by contract, my own management could sue me if I didn’t follow through with the tour. He handed me a sheet of paper as I got off the stage in Vegas and said I had to sign it. It was very threatening and scary and, with the conservatorship, I couldn’t even get my own attorney. So, out of fear, I went ahead and I did the tour.
And she asserted that the larger issue of guardianship requires further inquiry. Conservatorships are typically reserved for those who are old, ill or infirm — people who are deemed unable to take care of themselves or susceptible to outside influence or manipulation.
I feel like they’re making me feel like I live in a rehab program. This is my home. I’d like for my boyfriend to be able to drive me in his car. And I want to meet with a therapist once a week, not twice a week, and I want him to come to my home. Because I actually know I do need a little therapy.