Potter Reflects on 30-Year Tenure as Environmental Court Judge

By Bill Dries

Editor’s Note: This is a Daily News series featuring past winners of the Bobby Dunavant Public Service Awards, which annually honor one elected and one non-elected government official. The 2012 awards will be presented Feb. 22.


(Photo: Lance Murphey)

There have been times when Judge Larry Potter has probably questioned whether some of the abandoned and neglected properties he has dealt with in Environmental Court might outlast his tenure as head of the court.

“Someone is going to get killed out there,” Potter said at a 1995 hearing on what was then known as the Rhodes Jennings Building at Main Street and Jefferson Avenue Downtown. “We’re going to walk away from here today and somebody is going to barricade that property.”

Fourteen years later, the building opened as the renovated Court Square Center. But there was a lot of downtime for the building even before Potter’s declaration from the bench 17 years ago.

The Environmental Court marks its 30th anniversary this year, and Potter is the only judge the court has ever had.

This is the latest in The Daily News’ Memphis Standout series on past winners of the Bobby Dunavant Public Service Awards, which are designed to promote better government leadership. The awards honor one elected official and one non-elected official.

The honorees selected by the Dunavant family and the Rotary Club of Memphis East will be announced at a luncheon Feb. 22 at 11:45 a.m. at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis, 3700 Central Ave. Brad Martin of The Martin Institute will be the keynote speaker.

The award is also sponsored by The Daily News and the University of Memphis.

“I always wanted to be involved in this area of the law. When I became a judge I just felt like I had found, I guess, my calling. I always dreamed about where we could go and what we could do. I have followed that dream, so to speak, for years,” Potter said when asked if he expected he would still be the judge of the Environmental Court three decades later. “I don’t think I really thought about it like that. I just took it one day at a time trying to deal with the kind of things that we see and hope that we would make a difference.”

The name of the court might have created some assumptions unique to the time, he added.

“In 1982, there were people who thought that environmental issues were something that was left-wing and that it was something that was really pie in the sky – didn’t necessarily matter,” Potter said. “It was not an issue that really a lot of people were concerned with. People were thinking in terms of EPA issues and a lot of federal issues. Where the rubber meets the road is here in the local area dealing with the area of nuisance.”

There were some indications even then, however, of the value of such a court. One of the most prominent examples is Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges’ various homes, which came adorned with fake skeletons, old cars and large mounds of sand that irritated neighbors across the city.

When it started, the court was part of Memphis City Court. And it only had jurisdiction over violations of city ordinances for which the maximum penalty was a $50 fine. In 1991, the court became a civil division of Shelby County General Sessions Court under an act of the Tennessee Legislature. That gave the court a countywide scope and, more importantly, the power to enforce actions with injunctions and contempt citations that meant jail time.

The underlying principle of a single judge overseeing a docket of one kind of case is the same one used in the Shelby County Drug Court as well as the domestic violence docket that has been tried several times in General Sessions Court.

“There’s 30 years of consistency and 30 years of seeing people and 30 years of dealing with problems and 30 years of dealing with people that I’ve dealt with before,” he said. “People tend to try, I think, to do the right thing. Obviously we have hardheaded folks – or you wouldn’t need a judge. I think people are becoming more aware, and the awareness is critical to the vitality of this community.”

Potter ran for the post in 1983 and won and has won election ever since to the court. The political process can be a daunting place to enter though – even when the circumstances are ideal and everybody is seeking the office for the right reason.

“There are good people that I think do not wish to run for public office because of the whole concept of having to stand for election. … It can become personally, physically and emotionally draining. Sometimes it just takes a toll on family and friends. It’s difficult to do,” Potter said.

“There are people in this community that serve and serve honorably. We need to give attention to what they have done and how they have done it.”