- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2021

Rep. Matt Gaetz says the #FreeBritney movement is bigger than Britney Spears.

Mr. Gaetz, Florida Republican, said the pop singer’s legal battle to regain control of her life and her estimated $60 million fortune sheds light on an injustice against Americans whom courts deem unfit. He is leading the charge in Congress for a #FreeBritney-style rewrite of conservatorship laws, which allow court-appointed custodians to make decisions for people deemed mentally unable to run their own lives.

“This isn’t just the gravitation to a celebrity,” Mr. Gaetz told The Washington Times. “This is a unique level of abuse incurred by a celebrity that opens the door to broader abuse that’s happening all over America.”

A report by the National Council on Disability estimates that at least 1.3 million Americans are under guardianship or conservatorship orders.

Mr. Gaetz, with Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Burgess Owens of Utah, sent a letter June 30 inviting Miss Spears to testify in front of Congress about her conservatorship struggle.

“You have been mistreated by America’s legal system. We want to help,” the letter reads. “The United States Congress should hear your story and be inspired to bipartisan action.”

Miss Spears, 39, who rose to fame with a music career in the 1990s, has been under the legal control of her father, Jamie Spears, for 12 years. A California court ordered the conservatorship after Miss Spears suffered a mental breakdown in 2008 that resulted in hospitalization and rehabilitation.

The details of the conservatorship have been kept private, but Mr. Spears reportedly has legal authority over his daughter’s decisions on business deals, finances, health care and personal life.

In June 23 testimony in her conservatorship case, Miss Spears said she had been overworked and was forced to take medications and wear an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy.

“It’s embarrassing and demoralizing what I’ve been through, and that’s the main reason I’ve never said it openly,” Miss Spears said during her testimony. “I didn’t want to say it openly because I honestly don’t think anyone would believe me.”

Miss Spears’ conservatorship is scheduled to be addressed again in court on Wednesday.

Mr. Gaetz linked Republican interest in the conservatorship issue to the party’s longtime support of individual rights over “excesses” of government power, which garnered renewed attention from the backlash against coronavirus lockdowns.

“There is a healthy debate for America to have about the size and scope of government,” Mr. Gaetz said. “Government shouldn’t be able to tell a 39-year-old woman how long she has to keep her IUD in.”

Mr. Gaetz and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, in March to hold a hearing on conservatorship abuse, though Mr. Gaetz said Mr. Nadler has been “very pessimistic” about prioritizing the issue.

Mr. Gaetz dismissed speculation that recent sexual misconduct allegations against him prevented more congressional members from joining his effort to help Miss Spears.

The three-term member of Congress has been accused of having sex with a minor and breaking sex trafficking laws.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Jordan publicly joined the #FreeBritney effort before reports surfaced that the Justice Department was investigating Mr. Gaetz.

“When we first got involved, it was just myself and congressman Jordan,” Mr. Gaetz said. “And now you’ve seen three other members of Congress work on this issue. So I understand that sometimes the media likes to focus on scandal more than substance, but I’ve got a job to do. And I intend to do it.”

Asked whether Mr. Gaetz had any intention to step down from his seat during the investigation, the lawmaker cited past sexual assault accusations against President Biden.

“As it relates to my circumstance, I have fewer named accusers than Joe Biden, and it’s been three months,” he said. “Maybe he should resign.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have rallied behind Miss Spears’ case in some capacity, mostly by sharing support on social media. 

“This Britney Spears conservatorship — a word I didn’t know until yesterday — is some of the craziest [s—-] I’ve seen in a long time. Do you think Congress should investigate?” Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted last month.

Rep. Katherine Clark, another Massachusetts Democrat, invoked the hashtag #FreeBritney in a tweet shortly after the singer’s June testimony.

“Everyone deserves control over their own body. Period,” Ms. Clark said.

Mr. Gaetz said he is working on legislation with Mr. Owens that would create a federal cause of action for people who are abused in conservatorship or guardianship.

“There is still a lot of work to do regarding what remedies that cause of action could generate,” Mr. Gaetz said. “Initial ideas include the right for an independent audit and the right for guardianships to have a sunset. And then, obviously, certain rights that Congress values [such as] voting rights, rights to make one’s own decision about their health care.”

The lawmaker said he has noticed concerns from representatives of districts in Arizona and Florida, which have large elderly populations.

Mr. Owens said he got involved after seeing firsthand how legal relationships can exploit vulnerable people.

“If there are any steps that Congress can take, we want to try, even if that is listening and using our voices to advocate for those potentially mistreated by our country’s legal system,” Mr. Owens said in a statement to the Deseret News.

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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