Chance encounter leads Karen Mills-Francis to TV fame
After bumping into a friend in a parking garage in Miami, Judge Karen Mills-Francis (JD 87) had an idea for her next career step.
Mills-Francis was a county judge for Miami-Dade County when she ran into her colleague, Circuit Judge David Young in the spring of 2007. Young had just been hired for his own TV show, which is now in its second season.
“I saw him in the garage parking lot and I congratulated him, and I said, ‘I wonder why nobody has ever contacted me about a court show,’” Mills-Francis said. “About two weeks later, I got a call from someone from Sony Pictures Television asking if I would be willing to come to New York to audition for a show. And I did, and here I am today.”
After a recommendation to Sony from Young, Mills-Francis is now TV’s Judge Karen, which began airing on Sept. 8 in syndication. Mills-Francis made a few innovative additions to her show to differentiate it from the saturated court TV show market.
For example, Mills-Francis is the only TV judge that allows the litigants in her courtroom to direct and cross-examine their witnesses, which often turns contentious.
Further, her courtroom has a witness stand and the witnesses are sequestered during other testimony. This is more representative of a real courtroom, while the other court TV shows often have the witnesses standing with the litigants through the whole trial.
“When I agreed to do this show, it was important to me that it be court and then entertaining,” Mills-Francis said.
The show also includes an “Ask Judge Karen” segment at the end of each episode. Viewers send in videotaped legal questions, and Mills-Francis researches their questions and answers them on air.
Mills-Francis is satisfied with how the show has turned out, and it is doing well in the ratings, she said.
“It’s kind of hard to be objective, because it is me on TV,” she said. “Of course I’m going to say ‘oh it’s a wonderful show,’ because I did a great job. But then, others have to say that, and I guess they have spoken because we have very good ratings.”
According to Sony, the show is one of the highest rated daytime shows in Miami.
Mills-Francis was born and raised in Miami, which is essentially the TV judge capitol of the world. Five of the judges on TV came from Miami, Mills-Francis said.
“I came up with something the other day that made sense to me,” she joked. “We’re in the Bermuda Triangle. We’re on the tip of the Bermuda Triangle, so strange things happen here. I guess that’s why so many of these judges are from Miami. I heard yesterday there is another judge getting a TV show from Miami.”
Before stepping down from the bench in April to begin working on the TV show, Mills-Francis was a county judge in Miami. She won an election in 2000 against a 24-year incumbent judge. Campaigning gave her a new sense of her community, she said.
Mills-Francis handled domestic violence, criminal traffic and general misdemeanor cases as a judge.
Prior to becoming a judge, Mills-Francis served as a traffic magistrate for two years in Miami. She also worked as a public defender and as a private defense attorney after law school.
While working as a public defender in the juvenile division, she began to notice some big problems with the juvenile justice system.
“I was shocked when I went to juvenile court at the number of children that were sleeping on floors at the juvenile detention center because they had no parent that would come and get them,” Mills-Francis said. “People talk about the problems and the conditions in adult prisons, but nobody talks about what goes on with these juveniles. It’s worse than adult prisons because I’ve never gone into the Dade County Jail and seen people sleeping on the floor.”
At one point, Mills-Francis became a foster parent just so she could take a troubled child home with her. She continues to be very active in children’s issues. Mills-Francis knew she wanted to do criminal work after taking a trial advocacy course at the UF College of Law.
“I took trial advocacy, and in trial advocacy, you have to argue both sides in front of a jury,” she said. “They give you a mock case, you try the case as a prosecutor, and then you turn around and try the case as a defense attorney. I won on both sides, and I got such a thrill out of being in trial that I knew that it was what I needed to do.”
Although some guys driving by in a pickup truck hurled a racial slur at Mills-Francis on her first day of law school, she enjoyed her time at UF. She praised many of her professors, including some that are still on the faculty.
Even though TV judges did not even exist when Mills-Francis was in law school, Mills-Francis uses her experience from the real courtroom on her show.
“A friend of mine said to me yesterday that I’m real,” Mills-Francis said. “R.E.A.L. The person you see on TV is the same person you’d see when you walked into a courtroom in Miami. I am no different from that person. I haven’t changed anything. My clothes, I wore the same robe as a judge, the jewelry, the hair, things I say, my personality – it’s who I am; I’m not putting on a show.”