In Memoriam William W. Potter

October 8, 1940

We will now pay tribute to one who so recently left us, and, who was such an intimate associate of ours, Mr. Justice WILLIAM W. POTTER.

Mr. Kim Sigler, of Hastings, will speak for the Bar.

Mr. Kim Sigler:

May it please the Court:

WILLIAM W. POTTER was in every sense a stalwart man. He possessed those rare characteristics that made him stand out among men. There was an indefinable something about his stature that exemplified strength, and a warmth in a kindly countenance that radiated friendship. These qualities, from early youth as a farmer boy, formed a background for an illustrious life of service to his fellows.

This son of a distinguished Civil War veteran, Captain L. B. Potter, grew to  young manhood among the hills of Barry county, whose lakes, woods and streams he loved so well. The spirit of the pioneer was always in him. As a youth he walked a distance of eight miles to and from Nashville, Michigan, to attend high school. A burning desire for knowledge, coupled with his indefatigable spirit, enabled him to complete the four-year course in three. From his early youth to his last days his was an acquisitive mind.

He soon attained, upon admission to the bar in 1894, distinction as a courageous, industrious and fearless advocate. He gained an enviable reputation as a lawyer and commanded the respect of all who knew him. The people of his home community and all who had the privilege of his acquaintance loved him, for he was a sincere friend and a good neighbor. Courage was an outstanding attribute of Justice Potter, and a refreshing frankness permeated his being.

His earnest public service should be an object lesson to all citizens: prosecuting attorney of his county; State senator; member of the draft board during the world war; president of the Michigan State Bar Association; fuel administrator of the State of Michigan in 1922, a position he filled with unusual distinction; member of the Michigan Public Utilities Commission from 1919 to 1927; Attorney General of the State, and Justice of the Supreme Court from 1928 to 1940. This long and varied public career resulted solely from merit, and those who knew him best realized it most.

He was a great believer in the democratic ideal, and to him the Constitution was almost sacred and a diadem for human rights. He was a respecter of precedent, yet unhesitatingly blazed a trail where his courage and genius commanded.

Several good books came from the pen of this distinguished gentleman. A “History of Barry County” was accurately and interestingly done. His “Michigan Evidence” is in most law offices of the State. The volume of “Judicial Power in the United States” disclosed the breadth and extent of his research. Four unpublished volumes for the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society will one day mean much to the understanding of our great State’s illustrious past.

But, it was as a member of this great Court that he made his most useful contribution to his State, as is attested in 53 volumes of its Reports. His opinions reflect his great capacity and strength.

He enjoyed the work upon this Bench, where opportunity was afforded for the full exercise of his resourceful mind. Notwithstanding his enjoyment of the work of this Court, he experienced a still greater pleasure in his association with its members. He often said, “I get the greatest joy from my association with the members of the Court.”

The members of the bar of Michigan should derive much inspiration from the life of Justice William W. Potter. Hard work and industry were cardinal factors in his philosophy. Strong character was axiomatic. Friendship was to him something real. Duty was his goal.

The Bar of Barry County would appreciate the privilege of presenting the following resolution:

“Whereas, the late Justice William W. Potter for many years practiced his chosen profession at this Bar; and

“Whereas, he attained distinction as a fearless, able and courageous lawyer, and enjoyed the confidence and respect of the citizens of this county, where he was elected prosecuting attorney for two terms, his record in which office being outstanding; and

“Whereas, he was chosen as State senator for two terms during the Pingree administration, and was recognized as a leader in the State senate, having been at one time seriously considered as a candidate for the United States senate; and

“Whereas, he served for several years on the public utilities commission of this State, having been for two terms chairman of that commission, and having made an excellent record as a member thereof; and

“Whereas, during the World War he served on the draft board and in 1922, when a serious strike threatened to shut off the supply of coal from this and other States, he was named as Michigan’s fuel administrator, in which position his record won public approval because of fairness and good sense in handling that difficult position; and

“Whereas, he was for many years a most useful member of the Michigan State Bar Association, and was often designated by it for special work which would help not only the association but the people of this State, and was honored with the presidency of that association; and

“Whereas, Justice Potter was a painstaking student of the law, having a natural legal mind and a keen grasp of legal propositions; and

“Whereas, he was an ardent student of history and had made extensive research of the State of Michigan; and

“Whereas, he was the author of four books which are highly regarded, one being a “History of Barry County,” another “Law of Interest,” as well as “Michigan Evidence,” and “Judicial Power in the United States,” as well as an unpublished work for the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society; and

“Whereas, every one who knew him realized that he deserved all the honors that came to him in life, because he sought to use them not for selfish ends but for the good of the people whom he served; and

“Whereas, he was a lover of the great outdoors, and spent much of his time while relaxing in the woods and upon the streams and lakes of Michigan; and

“Whereas, he was associated in the law business with the late P. T. Colgrove, resulting in an excellent firm, making their names known through western Michigan; and

“Whereas, he became a member of the Supreme Court in 1928, while he was serving the State as Attorney General, which position he filled until the time of his death; and

“Whereas, we, the members of the Bar of Barry County, always respected and regarded him with admiration;

Now, therefore, be it resolved, that we ask the privilege of presenting this resolution to the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan, testifying to the high regard, admiration and friendship held by us for Justice William W. Potter. Be it further resolved, that the Supreme Court be requested to spread upon its records a copy hereof.”

Chief Justice George E. Bushnell:

All right.

The Court will hear Mr. Burritt Hamilton of Battle Creek.

Mr. Burritt Hamilton:

May it please the Court:

Tucked away in Volume 88 of the Michigan Reports, an explorer may find a narrative as stirring to free men as any classic written by Victor Hugo. The author was Justice Thomas M. Cooley, not given to overstatement. The subject was Isaac Marston, one a justice of this Court. With minor changes, Justice Cooley’s story of Isaac Marston might serve as an outline of the career of Justice Potter.

The parallels are striking.

Was Isaac Marston a University graduate? So was Mr. Potter. In fact, Mr. Potter held two degrees from the University of Michigan.

Was Isaac Marston a city attorney, a prosecuting attorney, a member of the Michigan legislature? So was Mr. Potter. Indeed, Mr. Potter was returned to the State Senate for a second term.

Was Isaac Marston an Attorney General of this State? Mr. Potter was an Attorney General also, after seven years upon the public utilities commission.

If Isaac Marston’s elevation from attorney generalship to Supreme Bench was speedy, Mr. Potter’s step to the same high post was at least abrupt. It may be remembered that Mr. Potter briefed the Chicago Drainage Canal case as Attorney General. A few weeks later, when he argued the case in the Supreme Court of the United States, Mr. Chief Justice Taft greeted him as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan.

Both Isaac Marston and William W. Potter traveled the laborious way — the way of books and midnight lamp; the resplendent American way — from farm to Supreme Bench.

The recital concerning Justice Marston carries the weight of Justice Cooley’s high authority. My meager tribute to Justice Potter rests only upon 40 years of friendship and upon Justice Potter’s imperishable record.

The record shows that, at the turn of the century and for nearly two decades thereafter, the firm of Colgrove & Potter enjoyed what might be termed an implied caveat upon the law business of Barry county — much as the brilliant firm of Fellows & Chandler and the older firm of Knappen, Denison & Taggart, commanded extensive business in their respective counties. In Barry county, Philip T. Colgrove swayed juries and William W. Potter supplied the law.

The record shows that Mr. Potter was a jurist before he became a judge. His text on Evidence was in general use. His opinions as a member of the utilities commission were cited. He had been a president of the Michigan State Bar Association. He had fought the long battle for State bar integration. Victory was in sight.

The record shows that, as a trial lawyer, Mr. Potter tried his cases in his office before he tried them in the Courts. He endeavored, in each case, to adopt a strategy making plain the lines of least resistance. If the trial court indulged harmful error, Mr. Potter experienced a sportsmanlike pleasure in obtaining reversal.

The record shows that the name of Mr. Potter as practicing attorney, Attorney General and Justice of the Supreme Court spans the long period encompassed by 184 volumes of Michigan Reports — volumes 111 to 294, both inclusive. His labors and his character are impressed indelibly upon Michigan jurisprudence.

He was an explorer. He blazed trails that will be followed by courts and lawyers while our institutions stand. He delighted in research. The joy of a Magellan was his when he discovered, through tireless effort, that statutes offending fundamental law had been overturned by courts a century before Chief Justice Marshall decided Marbury v. Madison (1803), 1 Cranch (5 U. S. ), 137.

Mr. Justice Potter was in intellectual alliance with the founders of our jurisprudence. He spoke of the Magna Charta, the Ordinance of 1787, the early Constitutional Debates, as one might speak of current events. He would have been at ease in the companionship of Pendleton, Randolph, Madison and Marshall. He thought their thoughts and spoke their language.

To me the man overshadows his works. Superb strength sustained him. His capacity for mental effort was prodigious. His capacity for steadfast friendship transcended even his capacity for work. To those he held dear, he was gracious and informal as an old-fashioned garden.

In my law library I have more than 300 books, once his. He sent them to me when he entered public life, saying: “You will use them.” Use them I do, but now with reverence — for once these books were used and loved by Mr. Justice Potter — a great American whose oath of office was a covenant with God.

I close by using almost the same words employed by Justice Cooley in his tribute to Justice Marston — equally true of Justice Potter, and as true here and now as in 1892: Mr. Justice Potter was worthy of his distinguished associates upon the Supreme Bench. Having said this, “I have said all that need be said in his honor, for these were men who, in any country having a jurisprudence similar to ours might do honor to any Court.” I thank you.

Chief Justice George E. Bushnell:

Mr. Shields, of Lansing, will speak now.

Mr. Edmund C. Shields:

May it please the Court:

My acquaintance with Justice Potter began in 1895 at the University of Michigan. As practicing attorneys in Michigan we occasionally came in contact, but our close association really started when Justice Potter became a member of the public utilities commission in 1919 and continued through his attorney generalship and his Supreme Court membership. From the first contacts he inspired in me a high regard for his energy and legal ability. The intimate acquaintance which developed between us created in me a very high respect for his honesty, integrity, energy and industry. His was an independent but straight-thinking individualism. He was combative but always fair and just. My memories run to him as a splendid individual, a wonderful friend and one of the characters of Michigan whose activities made him a citizen of whom the whole State, regardless of party or profession, can be justly proud, and I treasure his memory as one of the very leading natives and citizens of the State. I mourn him as one of my most intimate personal friends who created in me a feeling of highest respect for a splendid character, honest and conscientious citizen who never failed to fulfill his obligations as a holder of public office honestly, conscientiously and impressively.

I thank you!

Chief Justice George E. Bushnell:

In the Court Room are members of the utilities commission; members of the two branches of the legislature; representatives of the governor’s office, and the attorney general of the State, all of whom are here to pay tribute to these two Justices.

If there are any of them, or any other one present, that desires to add to the statements made they are at liberty to do so.

It is fitting that Mr. Justice Wiest should reply for the Court with respect to Justice Potter.

Mr. Justice Wiest!

Mr. Justice Howard Wiest:

The qualities of a man may be measured by the use he makes of the talents with which he is endowed. Such measuring of our late associate, Justice William W. Potter, requires consideration of his exercised talents in many capacities: lawyer, prosecuting attorney, State senator, public utilities commissioner, attorney general, Justice of the Supreme Court, author and historian. In each capacity he rendered outstanding service and his impress upon public affairs, in which he was a factor, survives his departure.

He has left with us more than a memory. His education, literary attainments, historical knowledge, legal ability, experiences as a public official, studious habits and firm determination to maintain this government one of laws and not of men, and the Court a trustee to such end, constituted him a splendid and helpful associate, and renders his loss to the Court and the State of great public moment.

His memorial is in living hearts; and the lasting benefits his life and services have accorded the Court, the State, the due process of law, the preservation of orderly government and the rights and duties of individuals will live on.

His energies along such line were never subordinated to the will of another. He was a free man, with will and determination to act as such. He was a true, spirited American, reared in the days of self-reliance, and, by incessant efforts, he equipped himself for the many important duties to which he was called.

He was never obsessed with enervating delusions under which liberty, manhood and individual endeavor are the scoff of weaklings.

An enduring State must have men, conscious of their duties, aware of their rights, and filed with the spirit to perform the one and fight for the maintenance of the other. He had and employed that spirit, and his exercise thereof leaves the admonition to all to carry on.

He has entered the haven of all mankind.

Chief Justice George E. Bushnell:

The Court recognizes the President of the State Bar of Michigan, Mr. Julius Amberg.

Mr. Julius Amberg:

May it please the Court:

There is nothing that I can add to the heartfelt and beautifully expressed tributes which have been paid to Justices Weadock and Potter, and each of which have made this ceremony so touching and effective and expressive. However, in behalf of the State Bar of Michigan, and all the lawyers of the State, I wish to move that not only the formal memorial presented but all of the remarks in tribute to Justice Potter and Weadock and the responses of the Justices of the Supreme Court be spread upon the Court records, and published in its Reports.

Chief Justice George E. Bushnell:

The motion made by the President of the State Bar of Michigan will be granted.

 Out of respect to the memories of our late associates the Court will now adjourn until 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.