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COVER STORY: The no-nonsense Judge Karen Mills-Francis

Published:Monday | January 10, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Judge Karen Mills-Francis - Contributed
Judge Karen Mills-Francis (second left), hangs out with mother Andrea Mills (third left), grandmother Elvira McKinney (left) and niece Veronica Mills-Raymond. - Photo by Noel Thompson
At left: Judge Karen Mills-Francis (left) and her mother Andrea Mills are quite amused during their conversation.
United States TV judge Karen Mills-Francis catching up on a chapter or two of the book she authored titled 'Stay in Your Lane' during her recent family vacation at the Great View Villa in Spring Farm, Rose Hall, Montego Bay. - Photo by Noel Thompson

Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor

If you tune in to daytime television, you will see the popular court TV show Judge Karen, starring the Honourable Karen Mills-Francis with her trademark burgundy robe and signature blonde hair. The show which debuted in September 2008, has been in syndication for three years and the Judge is happy to have been chosen following the audition process. The schedule is gruelling with 13 shows taped daily from August to October out of Los Angeles, California. The rest of the year finds her on the road doing promotional work.

But don't be fooled by outward appearances, Judge Karen is as astute as she is caring and she shared her story in an exclusive interview with Flair when she vacationed in Jamaica recently.

No stranger to the island, Judge Karen's late husband was Jamaican and at one point in her life, she fostered an 11-year-old Jamaican child. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, she is the oldest of five children and an alumnus of Bowdoin College in Maine, as well as the universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and a graduate of the Levin School of Law at the University of Florida.

Judge Karen has to her credit 13 years of practising criminal defence law in the office of the public defender and many years of private practice. She ran for judgeship in 2000 and won to become the second black woman to serve on the bench in the Miami-Dade county. She also lectures around the country on family issues, specifically concerning women and children.

Rest and relaxation

Now widowed, Judge Karen frequents the island for rest and relaxation with family members and friends. "I feel at home here and would like to retire here," she said when asked why she chose the island as a vacation spot.

Flair wanted to know how much of televised court shows is real and how much is staged for entertainment value. The Judge revealed that everything is real; including all the mistakes that are also taped. The cases are not staged, the case files are authentic and there are no rehearsals. "My researchers go to the courts and look at the most interesting cases; they pick the best ones then ask the parties if they would like to go on air with their cases." Judge Karen says the only incentive to the parties is that the show pays the judgements, but persons are not paid to appear on the show.

Robe choice

She does not wear the severe traditional black judges' robes. Instead, the fascinating Judge Karen wears a burgundy robe. This is not as uncharacteristic as some would think. Up until the death of King Henry VIII, judges wore robes of that colour. But she actually wore the same colour while on the bench in Miami and it is chosen by some members of the superior court.

It is not just about the show for the affable Judge, who has made it her life's work to protect children. The former foster-mother told Flair that she is passionate about empowering women to make sensible life choices instead of making fools of themselves. "You don't need a man to validate who you are; live your best life for yourself; don't scratch and claw to make it," she said in reference to her book Stay in Your Lane. So far, many women who had lost their way have told her that the book has helped them to see the errors they made.

Parental advice

Judge Karen offered some strong words of caution to mothers who do a poor job of raising children, especially in today's society that presents so many negative deterrents to good behaviour. These include:

Your child is not a pawn to be used against your spouse.

Children do not have a right to privacy in your home. You pay the bills and take care of them, so be in charge and know what's going on in their lives.

Mother is a noun and a verb, look out for and look after your children; act like a mother not a friend.

Your son is not your man, women who have 40-year-old men still living at home need to kick them out to go fend for themselves.

On the subject of the recent censure of Congressman Charles Rangel, Judge Karen took an equally tough stance. She said it is obvious that he did something wrong. "I am sick of our black politicians disappointing us over time. They know the spotlight is on them so they ought to be more careful with their mandate on the people's behalf." Flair asked whether racism had a role in the increased scrutiny on African Americans in leadership positions now that there is a black president in charge of the nation.

She admitted that racism is still a real problem in America and it filters down when everyone is affected by a controversial issue. "I don't play the race card and I agree with whatever punishment Congress deemed fit to give Rangel " she said.

On the question of WikiLeaks and the embarrassing fallout for so many countries and their high officials, she noted that persons in high places must be careful about what they say and to whom. "Other than the directly spoken word, nothing said between people is private. We have no right to privacy through electronic channels. Once you tell someone something that is recorded, it's no longer a secret. If you leave a message on an answering machine, it means that you have consented to have your voice recorded, so be careful what you say. Too many people are losing sight of what's really important, and there is no sense of responsibility for words and actions these days. It can all come back to haunt us," said Judge Karen.

And by the way: the blonde hair has been around for 20 years, but she is in the process of going all natural. "It feels liberating to stop processing my hair," she said.