Thirty years ago Memphis seemed like the least likeliest city to create a court devoted to tackling environmental issues.
But through the efforts of General Sessions Court Judge Larry Potter, Memphis and Shelby County are now setting the standards for doling out justice in the war against blight.
As young man of humble beginnings in middle Tennessee, Judge Potter watched his father's disappointing efforts to get local officials to do anything about a river pollution problem.
MORE: Shelby County General Sessions Environmental Court
That memory came back to him when he met people in Shelby County concerned with blight in their own neighborhoods.
For the last 30 years he managed to help those people get the justice his father never could.
Celebrating 30 years this week as the pioneering Shelby County environmental court judge, Potter has used his common sense, judicial knowledge, charm and wit to adeptly maneuver over the "slippery slope" between man and God's law.
"If you follow the law and follow God's law, you'll sleep at night," he said. "That's great, great advice. But, even if you do that what I've learned, you still make a lot of people angry. Everyone thinks they're right. But, unfortunately or fortunately usually there's only one right person."
Without a doubt in his three decades on the bench, the affable Judge Potter has presided over a wider variety of cases than any other general sessions judge in modern Shelby County history. From putting down the hammer to forever close such former infamous "dins of iniquity" as strip joints Platinum Plus and Black Tail Shake Joint to turning off the neon lights inside the once hell-raising bar Denim and Diamonds, Potter's true life's mission still remains to give voice and support to those who care about environmental issues effecting their neighborhoods.
The concept of a court devoted to those issues, that in 1982 as a city attorney, a skeptical Potter told a colleague, he didn't think Memphis would ever embrace.
"It's a great concept. It's not going to happen in Memphis," he said. "It's not going to happen in Memphis because the judiciary will just not go for it. And his comment was, 'well, you never know.'"
In his time on the bench, Potter's court has cracked down on owners of vacant buildings, overgrown lots and coveters of junk cars. One of his most notable confrontations resulted in the jailing of the colorful king of Zambodia, Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges.
Hodges offered little in the way of excuses, which is just fine with a judge who's heard them all.
"I can remember some wonderful excuses early on," Judge Potter said. "Individuals thought it would make a difference. When they found out that it didn't, then people stopped using those unusual excuses."
But, Potter makes no excuses for helping to spread the gospel of environmental justice through expanding the court to satellite sites in four communities with two more set to open soon.
"We've got more community courts in the city of Memphis than in any other city in these United States," he said. "We really operate in an innovative manner here. There's a lot left to do in this city and I'm not satisfied with where we are now."
And that should stand as "Potter's Law."
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