KAHULUI - Thirty years ago, Tennessee Judge Larry Potter decided to help clean up Memphis with one of the nation's first environmental courts.
Potter was invited to Maui on Saturday as the keynote speaker in a daylong conference hosted by Keep the Hawaiian Islands Beautiful to try to establish the state's first environmental court in Maui County, organizers of the event, Laulima 2012, said.
"I've learned over the years that if you get them by the wallet, their hearts and minds follow," Potter said to about 100 people at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
The environment is everything here. It’s so precious to the people and the culture.
And y’all need a court to protect all this beauty.”
— Larry Potter
Potter said that an environmental court here is a perfect fit - and long overdue. There's just so much to protect and balance in this delicate paradise, he said.
"The environment is everything here. It's so precious to the people and the culture," said Potter, who said he's been coming to Maui for three years to organize the court. "And y'all need a court to protect all this beauty."
Among those at the event were state Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, who represents Central Maui; County Council Members Gladys Baisa and Danny Mateo; and state Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement head Randy Awo.
"I challenge you to dream. By golly, just you in this room can change the whole state," Potter said.
Baisa said she "would definitely support the idea."
"It would really make our island beautiful and get rid of our junk," said the council member, who was told the county should get involved.
Awo said that he believes that the existence of an environmental court will act as a strong deterrent against home-demolition dumpers, exotic fish poachers and others who commit crimes against nature.
"I'm not diminishing rape at all, but I do consider what these people do to be rape of the land," said Awo. "Because of this unique place and our isolation, I really believe this is a great idea. Let's face it, what we are doing now is not enough."
Community Work Day Executive Director Rhiannon Chandler said this court is imperative. Too often the state judicial system hands out small fines or throws out cases for overfishing and polluting because it doesn't realize the significance.
Supporters said one of the keys to success of an environmental court is finding a fair judge with the right knowledge and desire to handle annually hundreds of environmental cases. The environmental court Potter developed has injunctive authority to deal with environmental problems in Memphis and Shelby County, a news release said.
In 1982, Potter administratively helped create the Memphis Environmental Court, which was the first environmental court in the state and the third in the country, according to Potter's biography. In 1991, he helped write a law to create the Shelby County Environmental Court that was eventually established by the state Legislature.
Keith-Agaran, who is an attorney, House Judiciary Committee chairman and a former Board of Land and Natural Resources chairman, is at the fore of the project and spoke Saturday. Keith-Agaran said that supporters hope to either persuade the state Supreme Court chief justice to set up the court administratively or to get lawmakers to pass a bill. It'll need a budget, too.
Keith-Agaran said that lawmakers, with maybe the public's help, will decide the court's powers.
Many of the courts go after everything criminal and civil from "hoarder houses" to zoning violation bribes, Potter said.
Potter said that there are legal precedents, too, since the United States has about 100 environmental courts. They often are compared to drug courts, where nonviolent defendants get a shot at redemption.
And often environmental court judges are creative in meting out punishment, such as ordering offenders to plant a lot of seedlings in remote places, supporters said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.