As It Happens

Britney Spears inspires bipartisan U.S. bill to reform conservatorships

Inspired by Britney Spears, U.S. lawmakers have unveiled new legislation designed to empower people who have been placed under conservatorships.

'It's not right versus left. This truly is a right versus wrong situation,' says Florida Rep. Charlie Crist

Pop star Britney Spears is fighting in court to be released from her conservatorship, a legal arrangement that has let her father control her finances and other aspects of her life. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

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Britney Spears is bringing Democrats and Republicans together over the issue of conservatorship.

Inspired by the pop star's legal battle, U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist, a Florida Democrat, and Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, unveiled the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act on Tuesday, designed to "empower" people who have been placed under the protective legal arrangements. 

"It's not right versus left. This truly is a right versus wrong situation," Crist told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"And we're trying to right a wrong, if one exists, so that people like Britney Spears aren't subjected to this kind of thing anymore."

Spears is one of an estimated 1.3 million people in the U.S. who have been placed under a conservatorship, the legal arrangement in which a judge appoints a person to assume personal and/or financial control over another person's life.

The conservator can be a close family member tasked with managing finances and other daily decisions for a someone with mental or physical limitations. 

The bipartisan bill would guarantee people under conservatorship an independent caseworker and give them the right to petition a court to replace their conservators with a public guardian or conservator without having to "prove wrongdoing or malfeasance."

Mace and Crist say they expect more bipartisan support for the measure, which would also provide at least $260 million US in grant funds for states. 

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist co-sponsored The Free Britney Act. (Chris O'Meara/The Associated Press)

Disability rights activists have long criticized conservatorships as ripe for abuse — an issue that has come to the forefront as Spears battles in court to be released from hers. 

The singer has been under the conservatorship of her father since she had a mental health crisis in 2008.

Speaking in open court last month, Spears condemned her father and others who control the conservatorship. She called the arrangement abusive and traumatizing, and said she's been compelled against her will to use an intrauterine device for birth control and take other medications. She also said she's been prevented from getting married or having another child.

"It was so, I think, devastating to hear the treatment that she was exposed," Crist said. "Just shocking."

Mace, too, said she was moved by the pop star's testimony.

"What she had was an opportunity to bring to light, to shine a light, on those abuses," Mace said at a virtual news conference announcing the bill. "Her situation is a nightmare, and if it can happen to Britney Spears, it can happen to anyone in this country."

Spears' father and his attorneys have emphasized that she and her fortune — which court records put at more than $50 million — remain vulnerable to fraud and manipulation.

Spears has maintained a very profitable career while under conservatorship, releasing several hit albums and performing sold-old shows in Las Vegas. 

Under current law, the burden is on Spears to prove she is competent before the case could end.

Fans and supporters of Spears protest at the Lincoln Memorial during a 'Free Britney' rally on July 14. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

Crist says he represents a lot of people under conservatorship in Florida, a popular retirement location, and he believes abuse of the system is "very widespread."

But a Florida solution isn't good enough, he said.

"What we have in the States is, you know, 50 different ways that each state looks at this with 50 different laws on the books," he said.

"Our legislation would make it uniform, a standard, if you will, for the entire nation so that you have more of a balance of power … between the guardianship and the individual that is under the guardianship."

This isn't the first time the so-called "Free Britney" movement has crossed party lines.

"Everyone deserves control over their own body. Period," U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, tweeted last month following Spears' testimony.

Some House Republicans have invited Spears to testify before Congress. The political arm of the House Republican caucus sent texts that described Spears as "a victim of toxic gov't overreach & censorship."

Crist admits the issue likely would never have been brought to the forefront were it not for Spears.

"I want to credit Britney Spears for her courage to share her story with the world," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Charlie Crist produced by Katie Geleff.

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