Robert Potter, who for nearly two decades ran one of the nation's toughest courtrooms, died today. He was 86.
Potter's lengthy sentences and stern lectures earned him a nickname he disliked: “Maximum Bob.”
Despite his tough reputation, friends and colleagues described Potter as kind-hearted, humble and modest – a man of character and integrity who believed in the conservative cause and good government.
“To say he was a giant seems inadequate,” U.S. District Judge Bob Conrad said. “In the dictionary, next to the words ‘integrity' and ‘courage,' there should be a picture of Judge Potter.
“Even in retirement, there was a sense of his lingering presence in the courthouse. Courtroom #2 where I preside is known by everyone as Judge Potter's courtroom. That will never change.”
Charlotte lawyer Lyle Yurko said: “Judge Potter was a legal giant….It's a great loss. He had a full and productive life. I know he was a deeply religious man. And I know he will rest in peace.”
Among Potter's most celebrated cases: the 1989 sentencing of PTL evangelist Jim Bakker, who bilked millions from followers of his TV ministry, and a controversial 1999 ruling that ended Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools' race-based school assignment and cross-town busing for desegregation.
In a 2000 interview with the Observer, the white-haired, soft-spoken judge talked about his sentencing philosophy, his reputation and what he had hoped to accomplish on the bench.
“I'm here to do a job,” Potter said. “I'm not here to win a popularity contest.
“The only deterrent we have against some people who commit crimes is punishment that is meaningful to them. The only one I know is prison.”
Published in Charlotte Observer from Jul. 2 to Jul. 7, 2009.