Delivers opening remarks in Judiciary hearing on toxic conservatorships
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, today delivered opening remarks in a bipartisan hearing entitled “Toxic Conservatorships: The Need for Reform.” Sen. Cruz discussed how Britney Spears’ ongoing conservatorship highlights the need for states to ensure their conservatorship process protects the fundamental rights of their citizens. Read his opening remarks below.
“Let me start by thanking you for holding this hearing. I think this is an important topic, and I welcome each of the witnesses for attending and testifying. Every so often, an individual case of injustice captures the nation’s attention, and it opens our eyes to issues that are by no means unique to that individual, but that previously had remained hidden from the public. That’s what has happened with Britney Spears, one of the most iconic American pop stars of all time, who has been under a California conservatorship since 2008. The case has captured the attention of the world. I count myself emphatically in the free Britney camp, and have been so vocally for some time.
“For more than a decade, someone else, Britney Spears’ court-appointed conservator has made all of the critical decisions in her life. Even though she’s a grown woman who has grown to incredible heights in her career, even though she’s a mother, to this day, she can’t make basic decisions about her own life, her own career, her own health, her own finances. Ms. Spears has fought this conservatorship, but it seems that at each critical juncture, the legal system has been designed not for her benefit, but to trample on her rights.
“When the conservatorship was first put into place, for example, Ms. Spears tried to hire a lawyer to fight the conservatorship, but the California court threw out her lawyer saying effectively, ‘No, she’s not capable of hiring a lawyer.’ The court based its reasoning on a purported medical report, but because she didn’t have a lawyer or a copy of the medical report, she didn’t have someone on her side to challenge that determination. As a result, she was placed in a conservatorship, even though from outside appearances, there was nothing to indicate the lack of competence that should have been required to justify her conservatorship for one week, much less for 13 years.
“Ms. Spears has made stunning allegations that because she is subject to the whims of the conservatorship, doctors forced her to have an IUD, a birth control device, against her wishes because their conservator didn’t want her to have children. That is not somebody else’s choice to make. That is grotesque. This type of forced prevention of childbearing and forced sterilization, sadly, it goes on all the time in oppressive nations like China. And sadly, it has an ugly, ugly history here in the United States. But few of us would have believed it was happening in America today.
“Given recent changes, including Ms. Spears’ first ever public testimony in her conservatorship case, Britney may be able to get out of the conservatorship as early as tomorrow, and if so, that will be a great victory for justice. But for so many people across the country, their conservatorships are likely to continue under the same system or a similar system as the one that has trampled on Ms. Spears’ writes for over a decade.
“There are approximately 1.3 million adult conservatorship cases in the United States, with an estimated $50 billion in assets controlled by those conservatorships. Sadly, in at least some of the instances, it’s all about the money and control of the assets in that conservatorship. Conservatorships can have their place; they can be necessary, they can be appropriate. They can help protect individuals who cannot care for themselves, whether because they suffer from a severe developmental or intellectual disability, or an injury or an illness such as dementia. We rarely hear about conservatorships where honest and conscientious courts and conservators act in the best interest of the individual and are responsible and responsive to changing circumstances. Those cases don’t make the news.
“Unfortunately, conservatorships can also be abused. They can deprive individuals of rights, of liberties, of opportunities to make decisions that most of us take for granted. We must be vigilant when individuals suffer from diminished capacity. We protect and we respect their personal liberty and their fundamental rights, including the right to make decisions that many of us disagree with or find irresponsible, and that’s important here. The question is not whether you agree with every decision the individual might make. The question is whether they have such diminished capacity that the law has to step in and protect them. And that means ensuring that the conservatorship process affords full due process protections, from basic steps like providing adequate notice of proceedings to ensuring that individuals have the right to counsel and that the burden of proof rests on the state.
“I talked a minute ago about the beginning of Britney Spears’ case. For the court to throw out her lawyer based on a secret medical report that she couldn’t access, the lawyer couldn’t access, and couldn’t be charged is something straight out of Kafka. It’s not right. It’s not how our legal system is meant to operate. Instead, we need to ensure that there is ample opportunity for people to contest conservatorships.
“We’re fortunate today that one of our witnesses will be able to speak firsthand about how difficult it can be to terminate a conservatorship and to have his rights returned to him. It also means seriously considering alternatives to conservatorships and whether individuals have reasonable access to those alternatives that could include supportive decision making, which allows an impacted individual to form a support network of people they know and trust, and consult this group in the course of making their decisions. It could also include the use of representative payees, special needs trusts, joint bank accounts, Power of Attorney agreements, and advanced healthcare directives.
“As a general matter, state law, and state courts create and manage conservatorships. That means that most meaningful reform should be driven primarily by the states, not the federal government. And the states are equipped to drive reform in this area. My home state of Texas, for example, has been at the forefront of reforming conservatorships to protect individual rights. In 2015, Texas was the first state to codify supported decision making as an alternative to legal guardianship. Texas also implemented several other fundamental reforms, including a bill of rights for awards, and increased court oversight of existing conservatorships. Other states, thankfully, have followed Texas’ lead and have instituted similar reforms.
“The Britney Spears conservatorship has brought to light real issues with conservatorship law that should shock every American. If the conservatorship process can deprive someone like Ms. Spears, someone with immense celebrity, immense wealth, immense material success, of her fundamental liberties, then what chance does the average American have? Because of what has happened to Ms. Spears under California laws, in California courts, states all across the country should be asking themselves what they can do in this area to make sure that they aren’t falling into the same traps, and that they are instead protecting the interests and the rights of every one of their citizens. I look forward to the discussion today. In today’s polarized environment, there are many issues on which the two parties disagree. There are many issues on which Chairman Blumenthal and I disagree, and I’m sure we will again in the future, but I’m glad we found a topic on which there is very significant common ground. I know both of us look forward to learning more from our witnesses today.”