Skip to main content

Author Spotlight: Karen Lott

December 16, 2019

Author Karen Lott, Discussing her Article, “A Functional Approach to Municipal Policymaker Decisions in Section 1983”

Karen Lott, to be featured in the upcoming University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change (JLASC) print journal is a Leakesville, Mississippi native. Her small town roots helped shape her career. After earning a degree in political science from the Mississippi University for Women, she went on to participate in the Teach for America Program. For four years, Lott taught high school and middle school English in primarily impoverished or rural areas in her home state. Her experience working under those conditions, “helped motivate [her] to go to law school … and informed [her] learning goals while in law school.” After deciding to attend law school, she elected to stay local, attending the University of Mississippi Law School because “(1) it was located in Mississippi, and (2) it hosts the MacArthur Justice Clinic.”

According to Lott, the MacArthur Justice Clinic accepts applications from interested students each semester. “Accepted students, then, get the opportunity to work on real cases that MacArthur is involved in and also get exposure to some of the injustices that are carried out in the Mississippi criminal justice system.”

“MacArthur seeks to advocate for the most vulnerable [people] in our society – those who often become trapped in the cyclical criminal justice system. This work is especially important in [Mississippi], where in statistical studies we are often pegged last when we want to be first and first when we want to be last. MacArthur works on a multitude of issues including unconstitutional bail, fines, and fees, immigration, conditions of confinement, judicial monitoring for compliance with procedural rules, mental health conditions, and even the death penalty.” 

While reflecting on her time spent working with the Clinic, Lott stated that, “at times, [she] struggled with my assignments because the material was just so heavy. However, the fact that tireless individuals like Cliff Johnson and the other MacArthur attorneys are willing to devote their lives and careers to turning Mississippi in a positive direction gives [her] great hope for the future of [her] home state.”

Ultimately, Lott explained that her interactions with the MacArthur Justice Clinic became the major driver behind her upcoming article, A Functional Approach to Municipal Policymaker Decisions in Section 1983. She describes the influence as follows:

“While participating in the MacArthur Justice Clinic, [Lott] was also looking for a topic for [her] law review article. [Her] professor, Cliff Johnson, had recently been working on a case in which a teen mother was stopped for a minor traffic violation, and the officer discovered an outstanding warrant for unpaid fines related to misdemeanor offenses. The youth court judge overseeing the teen mother’s case awarded custody of the mother’s child to another individual until the mother was able to pay court fees in full. The mother was put under a “no contact” order for fourteen months.

MacArthur intervened, the judge resigned, the Youth Court was closed, and the mother was reunited with her baby. But, this case brought to light a legal issue affecting impact litigation like the kind that MacArthur pursues. If a judge is responsible for issuing an unconstitutional order or for imposing unconstitutional bail, fines, and fees, it is difficult to pin liability on the complicit municipality under Section 1983. Judges enjoy immunity and many municipalities are able to separate themselves from a judge’s actions by claiming the judge is not a municipal actor. While in some cases that may be true, in other situations municipalities and local courts are intimately intertwined. This gap became the basis for [her] research.”

While the MacArthur Justice Clinic prepared Lott for the type of cases she’d have to review in writing and researching her article, still she notes that she, “was surprised to read about cases where a relatively minor offense like a traffic violation could cause an individual to get so caught up in the criminal justice system.” Resultingly, Lott states that she is, “even more aware now of how easy it is to find yourself in trouble in America. For example [she] encountered scenarios where a $250 traffic fine couldn’t be paid and an individual would end up on probation, which also imposed fees in order to operate the probation service. It’s [surprising that the] cycle can spin out of control so quickly.”

Now, with her article set to be published in JLASC’s next print volume, Lott’s “hope is that this article may help shed light on the way that some cash-strapped localities put pressure on their local court systems to become self-funded, which in turn perpetuates constitutional violations … and [furthermore,] that this article helps people see that allowing municipalities to separate themselves from unconstitutional judicial orders is not always a good policy.” 

For readers of her article who think “I want more,” Lott recommends that they first check out all the work that MacArthuris doing! Specifically she notes that, “there’s great information about a ‘Mayor’s Court’ operating in Gretna, Louisiana. Th[e] case did not make it into [her] paper but directly shows how intertwined some local judicial and executive branches are. This again demonstrates why municipalities should not be able to so easily separate themselves from a judge’s unconstitutional order.”

Finally, Lott indicated that the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, maintained by the University of Michigan Law School, “is a great source to stay abreast of current cases.”