Potter Is Go-to Guy in Tough Cases

By Paul A. Long
Cincinnati Post [Kentucky]
June 13, 2005

Shepherdsville attorney Bill Wilson recalls sitting in the courtroom in rural Bullitt County one recent afternoon, barely paying attention through the long docket, as Judge John Potter listened patiently to the drawn-out arguments of two lawyers in a divorce case.

Suddenly, Potter looked up and fixed the pair with a steely gaze. In his cultured southern voice, he asked, "What's really going on here?"

It was typical Potter, said Wilson, best known to Northern Kentuckians as one of the men who defended admitted murderer Adele Craven.

"You can't bamboozle him," he said. "You do so at your own peril."

Potter's challenging nature was on full display Thursday in Boone Circuit Court, when he unexpectedly put the brakes on the Diocese of Covington's record-setting $120 million settlement with victims of priestly sexual abuse. It wasn't that Potter found anything suspicious or dubious about the settlement. He just thought it was incomplete, and questioned the characterization of its being worth $120 million.

The insurance companies aren't yet on board, he said. Only the $40 million the diocese has pledged is available now.

"I do take issue with the description given the settlement," he said, the pitch of his voice keening from thin to gravely.

"There is no $120 million settlement to receive preliminary approval. There is, at most, a $40 million fund."

Anyone who expected Potter to have approved the argument while he had doubts about it simply doesn't know the man, said those who have worked with the former circuit and family court judge from Jefferson County. He's exacting and intellectual, with an unquestioned integrity, they say.

He's like the ultimate baseball umpire, said a former colleague, Jefferson Chief Circuit Judge James Shake.

"He calls 'em as he sees 'em," said Shake. "He's a very bright and dedicated guy. He's got a good grasp of the law in the technical sense, and he's got a good feel for what is right."

John W. Potter, 61, grew up on a farm in Oldham County, just northeast of Louisville. He was educated at Harvard University and Vanderbilt Law School, and in 1982 was appointed as a circuit judge in Jefferson County.

Praised for his sharp intellect and diverse knowledge, Potter agreed to be one of the first family court judges when the now-statewide program began in Jefferson County. He later returned to the circuit bench. But in 2000, Potter circulated a memo among his fellow judges saying he intended to resign. He was close to burning out, he said, and wanted to start a second career.

He had been accepted, he said, into the master's program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"Although I still find the job interesting and challenging, sentencing people is beginning to wear me down," Potter wrote in the memo. "It would be best if I moved on while I still find the job interesting and while I'm still a young man."

For Potter, an avid traveler, hiker and mountain climber who has visited Tibet, Turkey, and Papua New Guinea and scaled Mt. Rainier in Washington, the decision didn't seem out of character.

His leaving the bench brought out some criticism of him as being too pro-defense. A prosecutor said he often was not open to the commonwealth's case.

"We'll be delighted to face only one defense attorney in that court in the future," Jefferson Commonwealth Attorney Dave Stengel told The Courier-Journal.

But Wilson said Potter demanded excellence from all. "Potter's the guy you really have to be on your toes with. He's often three steps ahead of you."

In court Thursday, Potter stepped through a door behind the bench at the precise starting time of 2 p.m., wearing a blue shirt and colorful bow tie under his black robe. Almost as soon as the bailiff ordered, "All rise," Potter told everyone to be seated and was ready to begin.

He listened intently as attorneys Stan Chesley and Carrie Huff laid out the settlement and why it should be approved. He took copious notes, but said not a word. Once the attorneys finished, Potter called a recess and disappeared into chambers. A short time later, he came out and made his ruling.

As Huff - and particularly Chesley, in a loud, sometimes almost angry voice - tried to get him to approve the settlement, Potter sat silently, sometimes listening, sometimes shaking his head.

He wasn't changing his mind, he declared. Come back in two weeks with a complete settlement, he said. Again, it was not an unusual experience for those who have been in Potter's courtroom.

Dan Goyette, who runs the public defender system in Louisville and Jefferson County, said Potter often perplexes attorneys. He also disputes the notion that Potter is slanted toward defendants.

"My office has not always seen eye-to-eye with his rulings and subsequent decisions," he said. "I don't think there is much dispute that he is bright, capable, and hard-working. However, his opinions on cases can sometimes be unusual, if not downright confounding. But I never doubted that in his own way, he is well-intentioned."

Back in Kentucky from New England in 2003, Potter signed up for the senior judge program - which lets retired judges take cases in return for an increased pension. He quickly became the system's go-to guy for tough cases.

"All of the judges in the senior judge program bring a wealth of knowledge and work experience," said Jim Deckard, the chief of staff for Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert.

"But it's especially helpful that a man of Judge Potter's abilities is available to assign to high profile cases, wherever they may appear in Kentucky."

Potter now is in Franklin County, overseeing the felony charges against a one-time associate, former Judge William F. Stewart, who was indicted on 14 counts of theft by deception. Stewart, who presided in Shelby, Anderson and Spencer counties, resigned in December.

Potter also travels to Bullitt County, where he was sent to help cut a backlog of cases that stretched back for years. In a little more than two years, Potter has helped cut the caseload down to size, said Bullitt Circuit Clerk Doris Cornell.

He also has fit in perfectly, in a county that sometimes sees people from Louisville as interlopers from the big city.

"He's been very good to work with," Cornell said. "He just fit right in with us like he'd been here all the time."

He treats everyone he meets - even those before him charged with crimes - with dignity and respect, she said. He's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, she said, but in the end is decisive.

"When he makes a decision, that's his decision," she said.

He was appointed to the diocese case in December 2003, after former Boone Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger retired and stepped away from it.

The decision to appoint Potter to the case - the first class-action lawsuit certified against the church in the United States - was not made lightly, Deckard said.

"He possesses one of the keenest intellects, education and work experience of all of the retired or sitting judges in the state," Deckard said. "It seemed more than appropriate to have Judge Potter, a man of unquestioned integrity, to handle a case as difficult as the one presented."

Potter is able to handle the media glare of such a case and not be affected by it. He was a little known judge when he took on corporate giant Eli Lilly & Co. in a case that had national implications for the drug manufacturer and its powerful drug, Prozac.

The case arose from the workplace shootings at the Standard Gravure printing plant in downtown Louisville, where Joseph Wesbecker killed eight people and injured 12 before shooting himself. The families filed a product-liability lawsuit against Lilly, claiming Prozac had made Wesbecker violent.

The trial had a strange twist: The plaintiffs had some devastating evidence against Lilly, but Potter had ruled it inadmissible. But after Lilly's attorneys presented their case, Potter reversed himself, allowing the evidence to be introduced.

It wasn't, and the trial went to the jury, which acquitted Lilly.

Potter's suspicions that the two sides had reached a secret agreement before the jury began deliberating were aroused. A few weeks later, during an unrelated divorce case involving one of the defendants, he learned that Lilly was paying the person a great sum of money.

He called a hearing to force the parties to admit they had made a deal to withhold the evidence in return for payments. He called it a fraud, saying the case should have never been sent to the jury, and Lilly had no right to brag that it had been absolved of any wrongdoing.

The plaintiffs and Lilly fought Potter's inquiries into the case, with Lilly accusing him of conducting a vendetta against the company. But the state Supreme Court gave him the authority to hold the hearing.

Eventually, Potter stepped down from the case, saying his participation was a distraction. He later was vindicated, when both sides agreed to change the resolution of the case from a jury acquittal to an outside settlement.

That's also not surprising to those who know him. He likes to stay out of the spotlight, but won't let it dissuade him. He declined comment for this story.

"In my experience, I think he shies away from the limelight," Goyette said. "If he doesn't shy away from it, he certainly doesn't seek it out."