I’ve always been a public servant,” says Karen Mills Francis ’82, better known as Judge Karen. “I’ve always cared about the underrepresented.” As a public defender for four years, Karen had more than a few bones to pick with her fellow men and women of the law. “I wasn’t happy with a lot of what I saw in the judicial system,” she admits.The defining moment came when Karen saw eight juvenile offenders placed in jail during a lengthy lead up to their trials. Karen took over the cases and filed demands for speedy trials. She then represented each of them in court and stayed with them until they were released. In the end, she adopted one of the boys who had no family to go home to.
Karen’s decision to become a judge came more out of curiosity than frustration, and she applied on a whim while working as a traffic magistrate in 2000. “I thought about it,” she says, “and thought, ’well maybe I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’” She was officially invested into office as County Court Judge on February 9, 2001, and presided over Miami (Florida) Dade County Courthouse for eight years.
As a student at Bowdoin, Karen was a government and philosophy double major and was too busy enjoying classes with philosophy Professor Charles McGee to worry about what would come next. “The learning experience was great,” she says. “I was so blessed to have had a Bowdoin education.” After graduation, Karen attended law school at the University of Florida and started her own private practice in 1994. Even after becoming a judge, the learning process never ended for Karen, who takes Spanish courses and this year attended a two-week international negotiation seminar at Harvard in hopes of someday becoming an ambassador.
Then, there’s her television show, Judge Karen, which aired for the first time on August 12.Taping for the show, which covers civil and small claims cases in a setting resembling an actual courtroom, began in April. Unlike other popular court programs, Judge Karen will follow courtroom protocol as closely as possible in hopes of creating more of a “courtroom drama” than a reality television show. “It conveys the reality that this is a real trial,” Karen says. But of course it is not, and that has its ups and downs for a former judge used to presiding over a real courtroom. “It’s nice because I can talk to people,” says Karen, “but I don’t get to put anyone in jail.”
Originally published in Vol. 79, No. 3, Summer 2008 Bowdoin Magazine.
Posted February 01, 2005