From a shoe-free, chicken-sporting Zambodian with a yard of "artifacts" to harrowing cases of animal abuse, Shelby County Environmental Court judge Larry Potter has seen it all as the first and only judge on the court's bench.
Potter and his court celebrated 30 years this month with a reception inside downtown's Rhodes-Jennings building, which Potter helped save years ago in a blight case heard by his court.
The Environmental Court was started in 1982 as a city court that only heard a handful of cases. Potter, a former city attorney, helped launch that court, and when it was expanded to a countywide court, he was appointed judge. Today, the Environmental Court deals with blight, code violations (such as the infamous case against Prince Mongo and his unusual yard art), animal abuse cases, nuisance cases, and plenty more.
Potter expanded the court several years ago to include community courts that meet weekly in Hickory Hill, Orange Mound, Whitehaven, and Frayser.
Flyer: How did the Environmental Court get its start?
Larry Potter: I was in the city attorney's office, and Mayor [Wyeth] Chandler asked me to read an article about an environmental court in Indianapolis. The next day, he asked what I thought about it. I said it's a great concept, but no one would do that here. Some time later, there was a vacancy on the city bench. I applied for it, and by an act of God, I was appointed. The next day, Mark Hackett [then-director of the mayor's action center] came in and looked at me and said, well, we have a judge.
Its scope was pretty small at first, right?
Initially, we didn't have a lot of cases. Then we had a couple of cases where we proved that we meant business. There was a case that came out of North Memphis that involved some community leaders who were very interested in getting some blighted property dealt with. Word began to spread, and the docket grew.
We still needed the authority to be able to, as the old telephone commercial used to say, reach out and touch someone. We needed to be able to get their attention and tell them to repair something or clean up their house.
When did the court's scope expand to the county?
In 1991, then-chairman of the county commission Charles Perkins and Mayor Bill Morris wanted to create a countywide environmental court. I helped draft some of the legislation involved with that. It went to Nashville, and, by golly, it passed.
We got injunctive authority, the ability to put someone under court order and do something. And if they did not do it, they could be held in contempt of court and put in jail for up to 10 days.
What's been the most rewarding case?
It had to do with the Rhodes-Jennings building. For our 30th anniversary, we held the reception in that building, which has been totally renovated and it's stunning. It was in violation at one time, and the city wanted to tear it down. But we wouldn't let them do it. I'm very proud of the fact that we have reduced some of the blight in the city.
Was the Mongo case the weirdest?
I've had a lot of strange cases, and it would take us two weeks to talk about a lot of those. But that was certainly one of the more unusual cases. To be called "spirit judge" is highly unusual.
Is it tough hearing the animal abuse cases?
I saw a photograph [of an abused animal] last week that was just unbelievable, and I've seen some pretty bad things. Some of the things we see are heart-wrenching both for animals and for humans. It's a pretty difficult position. But I love it. I am blessed that, for the first time, there are elected leaders in this community who have bought into what I've been preaching for years — that there's a correlation between blight and crime. That's the reason I just can't quit. We have a lot of work yet to do.