Joseph Sax, JD’59 (1936–2014) Helped Establish the Courts as a Front Line for Environmental Activism

Precedent setting

Picture Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1970, at the height of campus activism. On March 11, students, politicians, and activists including Ralph Nader gathered on the University of Michigan campus for a four-day teach-in on the environment. Singer Gordon Lightfoot and the Chicago cast of Hair performed. Among the other events was a mock trial with a 1959 Ford sedan as the defendant. The event was considered a dry run for the first Earth Day a month later.

That year Ann Arbor was also the site of a less theatrical but equally significant moment for the environmental movement: the publication of a scholarly treatise in the Michigan Law Review by Joseph Sax, JD’59.

In “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention,” the University of Michigan law professor posited that many natural resources, like shorelines, oceans, air, and some land, are held in public trust by the government for the benefit of present and future citizens.

Public trust can be traced back to Roman laws stipulating common ownership of shorelines and navigable waterways. The concept later made its way into English law, including the Magna Carta, which placed ownership of such resources in the hands of the monarch, who was to act as their trustee on behalf of the public.

Sax applied the principle broadly to natural resources—thus laying the groundwork for decades of legal action to protect the environment. His article has stacked up citations in court decisions and scholarly journals alike. To call it influential “is a gross understatement,” wrote University of California, Davis, law professor Richard M. Frank in the UC Davis Law Review. The article “had a catalytic effect among courts and environmental policymakers throughout the country,” establishing a legal rationale for suing organizations, individuals, or government agencies whose actions threatened natural resources. Sax became known as the father of environmental law by empowering others to defend those resources as a public trust.

Read more at UChicago Magazine