For the first time since 2008, Britney Spears will be without her father’s oversight, a Los Angeles judge has ruled.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Judge Brenda Penny granted a petition by the singer’s new lawyer, suspending James P. Spears, 69, from his position as conservator of his daughter’s $60 million estate — a move Ms. Spears was pleading for, her lawyer said.
“This man does not belong in her life, your honor, for another day,” Mathew S. Rosengart, who took over as the singer’s lawyer in July, argued in court. “Please hear the plea of my client.”
After hearing from both sides, the judge agreed that suspending Mr. Spears was in his daughter’s best interest. “The current situation is not tenable,” Judge Penny said.
The court named a California accountant, John Zabel, as the temporary conservator of the singer’s finances as Mr. Rosengart had requested.
The major decision capped a whirlwind summer in the 13-year conservatorship, after Ms. Spears broke her public silence at a hearing in June, bringing even more attention to the unusual and closely watched case. “I am traumatized,” she said in court at the time, calling for those overseeing the conservatorship to be investigated and jailed, and calling her father “the one who approved all of it.”
The conservatorship was established in 2008, after Mr. Spears sought control over his pop star daughter’s life and business, citing her mental health struggles and substance abuse.
In a drastic role reversal at the hearing on Wednesday, a lawyer for Mr. Spears, Vivian Lee Thoreen, who had been among the conservatorship’s fiercest defenders, argued to end it right away instead of suspending her client, while Ms. Spears’s lawyer asked the judge to wait in order for him to further investigate Mr. Spears’s conduct.
Although Mr. Spears had long maintained that the arrangement was voluntary and necessary to protect his daughter’s well-being — crediting the conservatorship with saving her life and revitalizing her career — he filed earlier this month to terminate it altogether, citing Ms. Spears’s wishes and recent independence. (Ms. Spears said in June that she had not known she could move to end it.)
Ms. Spears’s lawyer, Mr. Rosengart, who took over in July, said previously that the singer consented to ending the conservatorship, but he argued in court that Mr. Spears should be suspended immediately while they address outstanding financial questions.
“This man does not belong in her life, your honor, for another day,” he said. “Please hear the plea of my client.”
Mr. Rosengart asked that a termination hearing be set for 30 to 45 days from now.
Mr. Rosengart has also called for an investigation into Mr. Spears’s conduct as conservator and questioned his management of the singer’s estate, including the size of Mr. Spears’s salary as conservator, “unwarranted commissions” and “potential self-dealing.”
Ms. Spears said in her courtroom speech in June that under the conservatorship she had been drugged and made to work against her will; forced to stay in a mental health facility; and prevented from removing her birth control device.
Recent reporting by The New York Times revealed that Ms. Spears had long questioned Mr. Spears’s fitness as conservator, citing his drinking and “obsession” with her. A former security firm employee said that under the conservatorship, the singer was tracked by an intense surveillance apparatus that secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom and material from her phone.
The crowd of Britney Spears supporters seemed to being holding its breath as one in the moments before the news broke that James P. Spears had been suspended as her conservator after 13 years.
Robert Bordelon, 25, of Los Angeles was the first to tell the crowd the decision had been made, before instantly falling to his knees, sobbing.
“They thought we were crazy,” he said through tears. “They thought she was crazy.”
The crowd erupted, jumping and cheering. Many fans embraced, seeing it as vindication for the #FreeBritney movement.
Arthur Avitia, 30, clutched his black fur stole as he took in the news.
“I’m so relieved,” he said, breathless. “This is what Britney has wanted for 13 years, and it’s about damn time.”
The news also interested activists who are seeking to advance the cause of ending conservatorship abuse, including Angelique Fawcette, 51, who helped organize today’s “unity rally.”
“This is vindication on many levels for many people,” she said after being told the court’s ruling.
“It means so much for the hundreds of thousands of people who are locked into conservatorships — both legal and illegal,” she said.
As heart rates slowed and the tears stopped flowing, the crowd huddled in small groups, parsing what it means for the conservatorship going forward.
Kevin Wu, 37, a data analyst from Los Angeles, has been a fixture at courthouse protests since 2019.
“While Britney’s case has garnered attention all over the world, it’s not unique,” he said. “Nothing’s going to change without public awareness.”
At Wednesday’s hearing and in the legal proceedings likely to follow, one person has the power to decide whether Britney Spears will remain in the conservatorship: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny.
Judge Penny took over Ms. Spears’s case in 2016, after the judge that instituted the conservatorship eight years earlier, Reva Goetz, retired from the bench.
At first, Judge Penny presided over the case as a court commissioner, a legal professional who can be appointed to adjudicate cases as a judge would. Then in 2018, Judge Penny, a Democrat, was appointed to the bench by former California Governor Jerry Brown.
Presiding over the case, in which she reviews the legal apparatus that has managed the singer’s finances, health care and personal life for 13 years, has given the judge a higher profile than most Superior Court judges, but she has declined to be interviewed about her role, citing judicial ethical requirements.
Judge Penny, who received her law degree from the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, worked for several years at a firm in Pasadena, Calif., before practicing independently. At Los Angeles County Superior Court, she worked as assistant supervising probate attorney before she was promoted to court commissioner and then judge.
In the Spears case, Judge Penny has reviewed attempts to remove the singer’s father, James P. Spears, from his position as conservator of Ms. Spears’s estate, a position in which he wields considerable power over her finances.
But she has declined to remove him so far.
The pressure on the court to delve more deeply into Ms. Spears’s concerns grew over the summer, though, after Ms. Spears made a defiant speech in the courtroom in which she pleaded for more autonomy, Judge Penny granted her the ability to choose her own lawyer, which Ms. Spears had not been allowed to do under the strictures of the conservatorship.
But she denied a request from Ms. Spears’s new lawyer, Mathew S. Rosengart, to move up the date of a hearing on whether to remove or suspend Mr. Spears, which angered some of Ms. Spears’s fans.
Some members of the #FreeBritney movement, who believe the legal process should be moving faster to eliminate the conservatorship, suggest that fans file complaints against the judge to the California Commission on Judicial Performance. On social media, Judge Penny has been the subject of threats and vitriol, as have others involved in upholding the legal arrangement.
Still, Judge Penny tried in June, after the singer’s impassioned plea to regain control of her life, to assure Ms. Spears that she empathized with her.
“I just want to tell you that I certainly am sensitive to everything that you said and how you’re feeling,” Judge Penny said, “and I know that it took a lot of courage for you to say everything you had to say today.”
When Britney Spears asked the court in June to be freed from the conservatorship that has controlled her money and personal life for 13 years, she made it clear that she did not want to undergo a psychological evaluation first.
A mental health assessment is usually the pole star in a constellation of evidence that a judge considers in deciding whether to restore independence.
Its underlying purpose is to determine whether the conditions that led to the imposition of the conservatorship have stabilized or been resolved.
Judges tend to authorize conservatorships for one of three broad categories: a severe psychiatric breakdown; a chronic, worsening condition like dementia; or an intellectual or physical disability that critically impairs function.
Ms. Spears’s father, James P. Spears, agreed earlier this summer to eventually step down from his own role in the conservatorship, and then filed a petition earlier this month asking the court to “now seriously consider whether this conservatorship is no longer required.”
Annette Swain, a Los Angeles psychologist who does neuropsychological assessments, said that because someone doesn’t always show good judgment, it doesn’t mean they lack capacity. “We all can make bad decisions at many points in our lives,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that we should have our rights taken away.”
The evaluation process, which uneasily melds mental health criteria with legal standards, illustrates why the exit from strict oversight is difficult and rare. State laws are often ambiguous. And their application can vary from county to county, judge to judge, case to case.
Bugging. Restrictions on spending. Failed efforts to hire her own lawyer.
In recent days, three new documentaries have come forward with revelations about the degree to which the conservatorship has exerted control over Britney Spears’s life for 13 years — and the extent to which she sought to regain that control early on, without success.
On Friday, for example, The New York Times released “Controlling Britney Spears,” which detailed how Ms. Spears’s father and the security firm he hired to protect her ran an intense surveillance apparatus that monitored her communications and secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom.
Ms. Spears’s lawyer called for an investigation, writing in a court filing this week that her father had “crossed unfathomable lines,” further supporting the need to suspend him as her conservator immediately.
Early on Tuesday, Netflix started streaming its own film, “Britney Vs Spears,” which used confidential documents and interviews with people who were close with Ms. Spears to detail the singer’s strong objections to the legal arrangement that went on to rule her life, as well as her attempts to escape it.
A third documentary, CNN’s “Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle For Freedom,” aired on Sunday, and included interviews with some of the singer’s friends and former employees. Dan George, who managed the promotional tour for Ms. Spears’s “Circus” album, says in the film that Ms. Spears “could only read Christian books” and “her phone was monitored.”
The Times documentary includes an interview with Alex Vlasov, a former employee of a security firm, Black Box, that was hired by Mr. Spears to protect Ms. Spears. Mr. Vlasov, who worked as an executive assistant and operations and cybersecurity manager, said the firm would monitor Ms. Spears’s communications through other devices that were signed into her iCloud account and share them with her father.
The surreptitious audio recording, he said, included her interactions and conversations with her boyfriend and children. (It was unclear whether the court had approved these strategies, and both Mr. Spears and the security firm said in statements that their actions were within the law.)
The Netflix film, by the filmmaker Erin Lee Carr and featuring the journalist Jenny Eliscu, reported that, very early in the conservatorship, Ms. Spears had attempted to hire her own lawyer to help her escape the strict limitations of the conservatorship.
Ms. Spears is heard on a 2009 voice mail addressing a lawyer, who is not identified, seeking reassurance that her effort to end the conservatorship would not jeopardize her right to time with her two sons. At the time, about a year into the conservatorship, Ms. Spears was represented by a court-appointed lawyer after a judge determined that she did not have the capacity to choose her own.
Ms. Eliscu, who said that she knew Ms. Spears after profiling her twice for Rolling Stone, recounts a time when Sam Lufti, Ms. Spears’s friend and sometime manager, asked her to surreptitiously present court papers for the singer to sign; the papers stated that Ms. Spears’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, was not “advocating adequately on her behalf.” Ms. Eliscu said she met Ms. Spears in the bathroom of a hotel and the singer signed the document, but her wishes were not granted.
Ms. Spears was represented by Mr. Ingham until July, when a judge ruled that she could choose her own lawyer.
Britney Spears first publicly addressed her struggles with the conservatorship in June at a dramatic court hearing in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized,” Ms. Spears said in an emotional 23-minute address by phone that was broadcast in the courtroom and, as she insisted, to the public. “I just want my life back.”
Ms. Spears told the court that she had felt forced by the conservatorship to perform against her will.
The people who did this to me should not get away and to be able to walk away so easily. To recap: I was on tour in 2018. I was forced to do. My management said if I don’t do this tour, I will have to find an attorney, and, by contract, my own management could sue me if I didn’t follow through with the tour. He handed me a sheet of paper as I got off the stage in Vegas and said I had to sign it. It was very threatening and scary and, with the conservatorship, I couldn’t even get my own attorney. So, out of fear, I went ahead and I did the tour.
And she asserted that the larger issue of guardianship requires further inquiry. Conservatorships are typically reserved for those who are old, ill or infirm — people who are deemed unable to take care of themselves or susceptible to outside influence or manipulation.
I feel like they’re making me feel like I live in a rehab program. This is my home. I’d like for my boyfriend to be able to drive me in his car. And I want to meet with a therapist once a week, not twice a week, and I want him to come to my home. Because I actually know I do need a little therapy.