He won’t be leaving the bench entirely, as he plans to continue as a senior judge, filling in for judges around the state when needed.
As Cherokee County’s population grew over the last 30 years, the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit moved from five counties to two, then to only Cherokee County. Some of the cases, Mills said, have changed, too.
“Years ago, the only civil cases were divorces. There was little in the way of business or industry up here, so there was no one to sue,” he said.
Gone as well are the pig-theft cases he heard during more agriculture-focused times.
As for criminal cases, Mills said it’s now more common to hear cases that question who committed the crime.
“It used to almost never be a whodunit. It was a whydunit. Now we’re seeing more whodunits, which are more difficult cases,” he said.
With the growth in the county, Mills said the size of the court staff hasn’t increased much.
“We do more with less here,” he said. Each judge has a secretary, a court reporter and a legal clerk.
When his court reporter of more than 20 years, Betty Peterson, retired, her daughter, Kim Probst, took over as Mills’ court reporter.
His secretary, Brenda Whitfield, has worked in the legal system since the 1960s with the exception of time taken off to raise her children.
“I’ve been lucky to have a good staff throughout my years. They don’t get a lot of reward. I’ve been really lucky in that regard,” Mills said.
Keeping costs low, he said, will be challenging for the court system in the future.
Even though Mills has had the same general routine since 1981, every case has a personality of its own.
“There are nuances to every case, different legal issues. You’d think you would see the same things over and over again, but you just don’t,” he said.
Most cases are appealed, Mills said, and one party in cases he hears is almost always unhappy.
“Invariably, there’s always at least one loser,” he said.
Adoptions and the swearing-in of new attorneys are some of the happier moments Mills presides over.
“In adoptions, virtually nobody goes away unhappy, but you never know what happened before that,” he said.
Mills has also been a Boy Scout leader since his son, also named Frank but known as Tater, was a small child. He is assistant Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 241.
“I was a Scout, and I’ve been involved since my son was a Cub Scout. He graduated and grew up, but I stayed involved,” he said.
Mills worked as district attorney before taking the bench as a judge.
He is a member of the state committee on jury instructions, a committee he chaired for 17 years.
“I translate legalese into English. That’s one of my specialties,” he said.
At a retirement reception for Mills earlier in the week, many members of the legal community sang his praises.
District Attorney Garry Moss said Mills “is not a person who thinks inside the box.”
“Judge Mills has never seen the box,” he said.
Former Superior Court Judge Marion T. Pope called Mills “the best judge I’ve ever seen.”
Many also praised Mills’ prosecutorial work and volunteerism with Boy Scouts.