Special to South Florida Times
In Judge Karen Mills-Francis’ world, life is as real as it gets.
You can enter her courtroom every weekday on TV One and see her preside over an array of small court cases. The show has become a hit among those who love to watch wrongs being righted. She says frequent questions regard the truthfulness of the squabbles: domestic disarray, financial finagling, wrecked romances, workplace wrangling, doggy doings, neighborhood nastiness.
“A lot of people have asked me if my show is fake, if the litigants are paid actors. Even my father at one point thought it was all set up,” she said in a recent interview.
It is not fake.
Judge Karen’s Court is her second television show; the first version, by Sony Entertainment, went off the air in 2009, when the company stopped producing court-themed-reality shows altogether. Judge Karen, as she is called, explains that stringers in Los Angeles, where the series is now filmed, are hired to find entertaining cases filed in civil court. The selected litigants must agree to be unrepresented and if the plaintiffs prevail the show pays for up to $5,000, generally the maximum claim in small court claims.
Produced by Litton Entertainment with executive producer Rich Goldman at the helm, Judge Karen’s Court has helped establish Judge Karen’s reputation. Besides her singular sense of style — her trademark burgundy robes and blonde hair quickly set her apart — the African-American TV judge also stands out for having a compassionate heart.
“Judge Karen has a more nurturing approach; her whole thing is people,” said Jenita Lyons, founder of GEMS, a mentoring program for young girls in Miami. “She tries to make sure each side hears each other; tries to have people examine themselves, where they went wrong.”
Judge Karen also won the hearts of the members of the Embrace Girls Foundation, when she visited them in Miami on Dec. 2 as a special guest of one of their tea parties.
"I wish I'd had an organization like this when I was growing up. It would have really made a huge difference in preparing me for my future," Mills-Francis said at the tea party.
"She really can identify with our girls and the challenges they'll face in life,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson, who attended the Embrace Girls event.
Judge Karen, 50, describes herself as “a public servant at heart.” If there’s any underlying issue she says she takes the extra step to help people “uncover the dirt” by resolving emotional issues, particularly when litigants are related.
Her recently released book Stay in Your Lane: Judge Karen’s Guide to Living Your Best Life, is a compilation of the insights she has drawn out of her professional and life experiences.
“The ‘staying in your lane’ analogy refers to having a line of direction, a purpose one is in control of,” she said in the interview.
The Miami native who was raised in Liberty City practiced criminal defense law for 13 years in the Public Defender’s Office as well as private practice.
“The Caribbean and South American thing makes this city a very colorful place,” she said.
She recalled that dead and live roosters were released on a regular basis by santeros around the courthouse where she worked. She also recalled a first-degree murder case involving a man who decapitated his girlfriend and stood on a corner on U.S.-1 holding her head for all to see.
After completing her undergraduate education at Bowdoin College in Maine on a full scholarship, Mills-Francis worked in the public welfare sector, training and helping welfare recipients gain employment. She graduated from the Levin School of Law at the University of Florida in 1987.
The chief county judge appointed her a traffic magistrate in 1988 to hear non-criminal traffic cases. She went on to become a certified family court mediator and, in 2000, the second black woman to serve on the bench in Miami-Dade County. She resigned as a judge in May 2008, a requirement to become a TV show judge.
“Everybody needs to shake up their career once in a while,” she said.
Besides her new TV series, Mills-Francis is also reinventing herself as a writer and fashion entrepreneur.
Queengrace, her line of clothes for full-figured women, will be coming out early this year.
It is a success story that, she said, she owes to her parents and extended family who were fundamental in directing her life and career.
“My father always said he could see me becoming a lawyer; he said I talked too much,” she said. “My family’s support was so invaluable to me. I learned that it really does take a village to raise a child.”
A widow since 2000, Mills-Francis has no children of her own but fostered a child she encountered at her court when she was 27. She is an avid child advocate who profiles missing children on her Facebook page and said she will donate the proceeds of her book to the youths of GEMS, where she offers mentorship and helps raise money for scholarships.
“Judge Karen’s tea with the girls was a very special one indeed, particularly because she is from their community and her insight and advice to them was heartfelt. She clearly embraces girl power and truly did exactly what our teas are designed to do: offer experiences, exposure and empowerment to young girls today who need to hear from those who have ‘made it’ that they can too,” said Velma Lawrence, executive director of Embrace Girls.
Added Lyons of the GEMS organization, “Because she was once an inner city school student herself, Judge Karen can relate better to the girls,” said Lyons.
• For more information on Judge Karen visit www.judgekarentv.com.