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A Republican And Democrat Have Come Together To #FreeBritney

Britney Spears, seen here at an awards event in April 2018, has renewed the debate over conservatorships, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressing support for the pop star.
Alberto E. Rodriguez
Getty Images
Britney Spears, seen here at an awards event in April 2018, has renewed the debate over conservatorships, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressing support for the pop star.

Updated July 14, 2021 at 4:52 PM ET

While partisan gridlock has become a staple in Washington, D.C., there is an issue uniting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle: pop star Britney Spears' legal battle against her conservatorship.

From progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lawmakers with vastly different political philosophies have shared their support for Spears.

Spears' conservatorship arrangement dates back to 2008 following her mental health crises and has enabled her father, Jamie Spears, to exert control over her personal decisions as well as her estimated $60 million fortune.

A conservatorship, also known as a guardianship, is a legal mechanism set up for people who the court deems unable to manage their affairs.

"Many people describe being under guardianship like a civil death — you cease to exist as a legal person, and somebody else is able to make decisions for you," said Prianka Nair, the co-director of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic at Brooklyn Law School.

In a leaked audio recording of her call in June to a Los Angeles Superior Court, Spears alleged she has been exploited, bullied and abused during the 13-year conservatorship.

"The people who did that to me should not be able to walk away so easily," Spears said.

In February, The New York Times released Framing Britney Spears, a documentary that highlighted Spears' career, tabloid exploitation and mental health struggles that led to the conservatorship. The documentary renewed calls to "Free Britney," with fans arguing Spears' continued work — releasing albums, performing and judging The X Factor — prove her ability to manage her own personal and professional affairs.

The film also prompted lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum to issue support for the star.

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23 in Los Angeles.
Rich Fury / Getty Images
Getty Images
#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Cruz has expressed support for Spears, saying he's "squarely and unequivocally in the camp of Free Britney."

"I think this is freaking ridiculous what is happening to Britney Spears, and it needs to end," he said on his podcast Verdict with Ted Cruz.

Democratic Sens. Warren and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania sent a letter earlier this month to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, asking for the data on conservatorships and guardianship arrangements.

"Ms. Spears' case has shined a light on longstanding concerns from advocates who have underscored the potential for financial and civil rights abuses of individuals placed under guardianship or conservatorship, typically older Americans and Americans with intellectual, developmental, and mental health disabilities," the letter reads. "Despite these concerns, comprehensive data regarding guardianship (referred to as conservatorship in some states) in the United States are substantially lacking — hindering policymakers and advocates' efforts to understand gaps and abuses in the system and find ways to address them."

Back in March, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sent a letter to Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., requesting a hearing on conservatorship abuse pegged to Spears' case.

"In recent years, there has been growing public concern about the use of conservatorships to effectively deprive individuals of personal freedoms at the behest of others through the manipulation of the courts," the letter read, later noting the "most striking example" of such abuse is Spears.

Gaetz, who is under investigation over possible sexual misconduct, has been one of Spears' most vocal defenders on Capitol Hill, likening the grip conservatorships can exert on someone's life to "slavery" in a June interview with OAN.

In a recent House Judiciary Committee markup, Gaetz reiterated his call to hold a hearing on conservatorship and that the "very first witness ... should be Britney Spears."

Despite support for Spears on both sides of the aisle, it doesn't appear that lawmakers are keen on working together on the issue.

Gaetz, along with three other House Republicans, sent a letter to Spears on June 30, inviting her to testify before Congress. No Democrats were listed.

Another aspect of Spears' testimony that elicited strong reaction from lawmakers was her allegation that she's prevented by her conservatorship from removing her IUD, a birth control device, in order to have a baby.

"It's insane you can force a woman to basically sterilize herself under the guise of protection," tweeted Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.

The No. 4 House Democrat, Rep. Katherine Clark, agreed, tweeting: "Everyone deserves control over their own body. Period."

Brooklyn Law School's Nair told NPR that Spears' claim that she's not able to remove her IUD "unfortunately is pretty common," noting that many of her clients at the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic find themselves in the same position.

"A guardian can really exercise so much control over your life that you are unable to make those very intimate decisions about yourself," she said.

Spears' conservatorship case is ongoing, with another hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

'Britney Spears is the tip of the iceberg'

Despite broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for Spears, it remains to be seen how Congress will tackle the issue of conservatorships. The path forward isn't clear cut, given that conservatorships are mostly controlled by the states, not the federal government.

But Nair says there's still plenty for Congress to do, starting with improving "poor and piecemeal" data tracking.

"Things that could be done are offering states incentives and technical assistance with actually developing electronic filing and reporting systems to collect basic information about guardianship, including the nature of the guardianship, the nature of the disability, the age of the individual," Nair described, noting the lack of a centralized data collection system makes it difficult to assess the scope of conservatorships and the frequency with which they are removed.

Nair also points to various scholars who argue guardianships violate federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which could open the door for broader federal involvement. She said the Department of Justice could issue guidance to states about their legal obligations to the ADA to "ensure that guardianship is a last resort that's only imposed after less restrictive alternatives are found to be inappropriate."

Nair said Congress could also urge the Department of Health and Human Services to federally fund community health advocate programs designed to support those who require assistance in making decisions.

"Britney Spears is the tip of the iceberg," she said.

"This affects people who don't have [her] platform and don't have that profile and have intellectual and developmental disabilities or significant psychiatric disabilities. I hope that what will happen is a recognition that all of these individuals are complex individuals who have varying abilities to make decisions for themselves and require support to make those decisions rather than just substitute someone to have make those decisions for them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.