Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Wednesday, Judge Brenda Penny ruled that Britney Spears can pick her own attorney. It’s a huge and overdue victory for the pop star, who is clearly in desperate need of strong legal counsel, as some of the information revealed in her previous hearing last month indicates. And it is also important because there’s reason to believe that, like many women, she didn’t get the full respect and aid she needs from those previously appointed to represent her.
Since 2013, decisions about the 39-year-old Spears’ personal life and finances have been controlled by a conservatorship, which is typically set up when a person is deemed unable to make decisions in his or her own best interests. In June, Spears asked Penny to end the arrangement and allow her to regain control of her life. She described the conservatorship as “abusive” and claimed that, under it, she had been forced to take the drug lithium as well as use birth control and to perform against her will.
Earlier this month, Penny denied a request that had been made in November to remove Spears’ father, Jaime Spears, from his role as a conservator. On Wednesday, Spears asked for him to be charged with conservatorship abuse. She described her 13-year conservatorship as “f**king cruelty,” telling the court, “If this isn’t abuse, I don’t know what is.” (Her father’s lawyers have said he won’t resign from his role, called for an investigation into the accuracy of her testimony and said he hasn’t been involved in her personal affairs since September 2019, when a co-conservator replaced him due to his poor health.
There are two possibilities here: Spears very well could have medical conditions or other challenges that could cause her to have occasional lapses in judgment, even though she has proven she can successfully fulfill professional obligations to perform as a singer at other times. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this conservatorship is being used inappropriately to control her life. (This seems to be the prevailing view of her fans, a number of celebrities and even the ACLU, who have all been rallying to her side). As I’ve said before, the details here are none of our business, as they hinge on her personal medical information – and it’s disturbing that the public knows as much as we already do about all of this.
But, regardless of what’s actually happening behind the scenes, one thing is clear. Spears is in an extremely vulnerable position. She needs professional assistance from a strong advocate she trusts.
And there’s reason to believe that, so far, that’s not what she’s been getting. Last week, attorney Samuel D. Ingham III, who has represented Spears since 2008, asked to step down after Spears’ remarks at a June 23 hearing suggested Ingham may not have been appropriately advocating for her – or even informing her of her rights. At the hearing, Spears alleged that she wasn’t previously aware that she could petition the court to end her conservatorship and that Ingham had advised her not to tell people what the conservatorship was doing to her. (Ingham didn’t immediately respond to her allegations or to a CNN request for comment). If true, the revelations are disturbing.
Unfortunately, however, they’re far from unusual. Research suggests that, when women turn to experts, their needs, claims and requests are frequently dismissed. For example, Cornell philosopher Kate Manne points out in her book “Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women” that studies show that doctors are often far more attentive to men’s complaints of pain than those of women. Men are more likely to receive pain medication for several procedures, while women’s complaints of pain are more likely to be diagnosed as psychological. In the legal system, we know that women’s allegations of sexual assault are often not viewed as credible by police and attorneys – which is one of the many reasons why, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only 2.5% of perpetrators ever end up in prison
Given how badly Spears needs help – be it to address a medical condition or an unjustified conservatorship – she should be able to pick a qualified attorney that she trusts to counsel her, so the judge’s ruling Wednesday was the only appropriate decision. Regardless of whether Spears is competent to make all of her own life decisions, there’s no question that Matthew Rosengart, the attorney she selected, is well-placed to represent her interests. Los Angeles Business Journal recently named him as a top litigator on its list of “the lawyers you want in your corner.” His past clients include Steven Spielberg, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sean Penn.
The decision to let Spears select her own counsel is an important step toward beginning to improve a situation that can be summed up in the words of her hit song: toxic.