More than 13 years after being deemed mentally unfit to choose her own legal representation, Britney Spears can hire a high-powered Hollywood lawyer, a Los Angeles judge ruled on Wednesday, signaling a new phase in the battle to end the conservatorship that controls the singer’s life.
The decision by Judge Brenda Penny came at the first hearing since Ms. Spears, 39, called the conservatorship that she has lived under since 2008 abusive and said that she wanted it to end without her having to undergo additional psychiatric evaluations.
Ms. Spears’s emotional speech on June 23 triggered a flurry of court filings in recent weeks as those involved in the conservatorship traded blame for the singer’s unhappiness and professed lack of personal agency. Her longtime court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, asked to resign, as did a wealth management firm that was set to share control of Ms. Spears’s estate with her father, James P. Spears.
On Wednesday, the judge accepted Mr. Ingham’s resignation, along with that of co-counsel he had brought on, allowing Ms. Spears to hire Mathew S. Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor, who has worked with celebrities including Sean Penn and Steven Spielberg.
Mr. Rosengart, who is expected to aggressively pursue a path to end the legal arrangement, attended the hearing in person on behalf of Ms. Spears. When the judge asked Ms. Spears, who appeared remotely by phone, if she wished to retain Mr. Rosengart, the singer said that she did and that they had spoken recently.
Lawyers for Mr. Spears did not object to allowing Ms. Spears to choose her new lawyer.
The decision was met with cheers outside of the courtroom, where dozens of fans representing the Free Britney movement shared news updates through a pink bullhorn, leading to hugs and tears. Among the crowd was Representative Matt Gaetz, who called for a change to federal laws overseeing conservatorships.
After Mr. Rosengart was approved by the judge, Ms. Spears, emotional and at times audibly crying, read a written statement, reiterating her desire to terminate the conservatorship without undergoing an evaluation. She added that she wanted her father removed as conservator and charged with abusing his role.
Ms. Spears said that the conservatorship had ruined her life. “I’m here to get rid of my dad,” she said.
Mr. Rosengart then asked for Mr. Spears to resign on the spot, but a lawyer for Mr. Spears declined, calling the request inappropriate.
On Wednesday, Judge Penny also accepted the resignation of Bessemer Trust, the investment firm that asked to resign after Ms. Spears’s speech in court, potentially leaving the singer’s estranged father once again in sole control of her roughly $60 million estate.
Scrutiny over Ms. Spears’s conservatorship has increased in recent months, culminating in her asking in court last month how she could still be considered unable to care for herself even as she continued to bring in millions of dollars as a pop star. The conservatorship that oversees her personal life and finances was approved by the court in 2008, after Mr. Spears petitioned for legal authority over the singer because of concerns about her mental health and substance abuse.
Yet even before her speech in court in June, Ms. Spears had long expressed serious objections to the conservatorship and questioned her father’s fitness as conservator, confidential court documents recently obtained by The New York Times revealed.
At the previous hearing, Ms. Spears also raised questions about Mr. Ingham’s advocacy on her behalf, saying that she had been unaware that she could ask to terminate the conservatorship. “I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that,” she said, adding: “My attorney says I can’t — it’s not good, I can’t let the public know anything they did to me.”
“He told me I should keep it to myself, really,” Ms. Spears said.
It is unknown what private discussions Mr. Ingham and Ms. Spears have had over the years about ending the conservatorship, but Mr. Ingham said last month that he would step aside if asked.
Mr. Ingham was initially named as her court-appointed representative while Ms. Spears was hospitalized and found to lack the capacity to hire a lawyer at the outset of the conservatorship.
A lawyer for the singer’s mother, Lynne Spears, who is an interested party in the conservatorship, asked the court to allow the singer to choose her own lawyer this month, arguing that Ms. Spears should not be held to a decision made in 2008: “Her capacity is certainly different today.”
The decision to allow Ms. Spears to hire her own lawyer was not a foregone conclusion. Since the singer had previously been found unfit to do so, the judge could have appointed her a new lawyer from a court-approved panel or required Ms. Spears to undergo a medical evaluation to prove her capacity to choose one herself.
Jodi Montgomery, Ms. Spears’s current personal conservator, had suggested what is known as a guardian ad litem, who would have been responsible for reporting Ms. Spears’s choice to the court, along with any potential concerns about the pick, and then retaining the private counsel if approved. But the judge deemed that step unnecessary.
Mr. Spears had also called for an investigation into his daughter’s claims of abuse — including that she was forced to perform and remain on birth control — arguing that he has not been in contact with her and has not overseen her personal care for nearly two years.
But Mr. Rosengart, along with a lawyer for Ms. Montgomery, a professional conservator who took over Ms. Spears’s personal care on an ongoing temporary basis in the fall of 2019, did not agree on how best to proceed with an investigation.
Lawyers for Ms. Montgomery, citing text messages from Ms. Spears, have said that the singer wishes for Ms. Montgomery to continue in her role for the time being. They added that Ms. Montgomery was currently working on a “comprehensive Care Plan” with Ms. Spears’s medical team that would “offer Ms. Spears a path to ending her Conservatorship of the Person, as she so unequivocally desires.”
A representative for Ms. Montgomery said in court on Wednesday that Ms. Spears’s medical team strongly recommended that Mr. Spears not be involved with the conservatorship.
Now, attention will turn to Mr. Rosengart’s strategy. Should he file to terminate the conservatorship altogether on behalf of Ms. Spears, someone else involved in the arrangement — most likely Ms. Spears’s father — could object, possibly triggering a trial before the judge makes a final decision.
In addition to raising the stakes of the conservatorship fight, the recent developments have led to an increase in legal billings. This week, one set of lawyers for Mr. Spears filed an updated petition seeking approval by the court for more than $1 million in fees for about eight months of work.
Under the California conservatorship system, Ms. Spears is responsible for paying the lawyers working on all sides of the arrangement, including those arguing against her wishes.
“This system is broken,” Gladstone N. Jones, a lawyer for Lynne Spears, said in court on Wednesday. “This is lawyers gone wild.”
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 29.
Samantha Stark contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
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