Joe Sax, Legal Giant and Visionary, Leaves the Gift of the Public Trust Doctrine

For Professor Joseph Sax

  • “Of all the concepts known to America law, only the public trust doctrine seems to have the breadth and substantive content which might make it useful as a tool of general application for citizens seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to resource management problems.” – Joe Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine, 66 Mich. L. Rev. 473, 474 (1970).
  • “Any person…  may maintain an action in the circuit for the protection of the air, water, natural resources and the public trust therein from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” – Joe Sax, Codified as The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970.
  • “To those for whom wilderness values… has never been of more than peripheral importance,  this book asks principally for tolerance…”… to the preservationists themselves, in whose ranks I include myself, the message is that the [public] parks are not self-justifying. Your vision is not necessarily one that will commend itself to the majority.  It rests on a set of moral and aesthetic attitudes whose force is not strengthened either by contemptuous disdain … or taking refuge in claims of ecological necessity. Tolerance is required on all sides, along with a certain modesty.” – Joe Sax, Mountains Without Handrails, pp. 108-109 (University of Michigan Press, 1980).
Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Joe Sax, father of environmental law citizen suits and the public trust doctrine and Michigan and California professor, passed away last week, leaving a legacy far beyond his 78 years. His wife Ellie Gettes Sax passed away this past December. His sense of justice, family, art, knowledge, wisdom, masterful writing, and passion will be sorely missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and the many students and fans who have had him in class or read his law review articles, essays and books.

But thank you to Joe for the legacy he left—writings that are so sound in research and reason and so visionary in real world application. Like the public trust doctrine from ancient times that he resurrected in the famous 1970 Michigan Law Review, parts of which are quoted above, his body of work will undoubtedly continue to teach students and lawyers how to protect water and the planet for generations to come.

My thoughts go to Joe Sax, his family, and colleagues, and the thousands of law students, lawyers and judges who admire or have been inspired (or jolted) by his work. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends close to him and those who knew him. Fortunately, the beacon of his work burns brightly, as it has done and will do.

I remember the first time I met him as Professor Sax when he spoke at the Michigan State University Union in 1972. I actually didn’t “meet” him that day, but heard him talk to the assembled group about a law (the Michigan Environmental Protection Act) that he had drafted and was signed into law by Governor Bill Milliken.

He spoke mostly about the idea behind it: that the water, watershed, and people who live or work there are all connected as a single natural system, and are collectively protected by this new law and by the public trust. How? Through rights, responsibility, and access (what lawyers refer to as “standing”) to courts to enforce these rights and duties and protect this natural system and trust from harm.

As a recent law graduate then working at the Michigan Supreme Court, I had seen a notice of his lecture posted on the Union bulletin board and wanted to know what it was about. I left the Union that day with one thing on my mind (like so many others, I’m sure): this was I wanted to do as a lawyer.

Little did I know that I’d be so fortunate, and Joe Sax so kind, to study under his personal supervision when I attended Michigan for my Masters in law. That he took me on was a huge gift, one I’ve wanted to return, like so many of us who have been inspired by him, in the day-to-day work that we do by applying and implementing the very values and principles he strived for and espoused so eloquently.

I treasure his trip to Traverse City a few years ago to deliver a keynote on water. I picked him on at the airport and he generously agreed to meet for dinner with Joan and Will Wolfe—friends of his and the citizen duo behind passage of the environmental citizen suit law in Michigan—and all of the lawyers, mostly young, at our firm. Even today they still talk about that evening.

Then there was his keynote address at the State Bar of Michigan Environmental Law Section’s 25th anniversary a few years back, when Joe traveled to East Lansing for another lecture. This time the focus was on accepting the reality of climate change and, as lawyers, beginning to envision pragmatic ways to prepare for the rising oceans and disappearance of habitat in flooded estuaries, wetlands and lowlands.

He wondered aloud how we as lawyers might start thinking about setting aside land use zones now for the new wetlands and sensitive habitats or spawning grounds that will be needed in the future as water levels rise along the shores of the oceans?  Or,  how should we as a society start to address the dropping water levels of the Great Lakes, preparing for the need of new wetlands in exposed lake or river beds?  Figuring out who will own these new exposed lakebeds if they become permanently dry upland property? Will these be considered private riparian or public trust lands or both?

I think about friends who had him as a professor or mentor, at Michigan and later at Berkeley, and can only imagine the stories they have, I’m sure quite similar to my own. Joe Sax wrote and taught eloquently—an artist within the linear framework of law-but he was also a tremendous influence and affected many, many people, in so many good ways.

He left a legacy of accomplishments, although that is not the way he would view them, given his respect, and I think love, for soundly researched, firmly reasoned, and artfully structured and worded writings on law, justice, the arts and culture. Rather, he left a legacy of contributions, giant contributions.  While not close to a list of his body of work, at the end of this post is a list of a few works that cannot go unmentioned.

So many other organizations, leaders, professors, and friends of Professor Sax could say or tell far more than I ever could. But we at FLOW are deeply grateful for Joe Sax and his life, and in mission we hope to fulfill in some pragmatic measured ways what he envisioned.

For in what is still the early morning of the 21st century, the world faces seemingly insurmountable threats, some that point toward global collapse if we continue on the selfish and material path that we now live as civilizations and economies. We have a choice between living in a world of top-heavy wealth of a few that pushes people and the earth’s commons to the point of collapse, or reasserting the fact that “no man (sic) is an island,” that we live in a commons and are tied by those commons to survive and live.

FLOW’s hope is to apply what Joe Sax’s envisioned for the public trust doctrine as an umbrella or benchmark that protects those parts of our world that are the commons, particularly the water that runs through all.  FLOW’s articulation and application of this vision is described in a recently published article:

A possible answer is the immediate adoption of a new narrative, with principles grounded in science, values, and policy, that view the systemic threats we face as part of the single connected hydrological whole, a commons governed by public trust principles. The public trust is necessary to solve these threats that directly impact traditional public trust resources like the Great Lakes and its tributary waters.  The most obvious whole is not a construct of the mind, but the one in which we live – the hydrosphere, basin, watershed, through which water flows, evaporates, transpires, is used, transferred, and is discharged in a continuous cycle.  Every arc of the water cycle flows through and effects and is affected by everything else, reminiscent of what Jacques Cousteau once said, “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Professor Joe Sax, we re-dedicate our work to you and what you stand for.

Memorial Services for Joe and his family will be held Sunday, March 23, 2014, Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco.

[Please note that the editorializing in the parenthesis in the list below are wholly mine and should not be attributed to Professor Sax. Better to read these selections yourself]:

  • Defending the Environment – A Strategy for Citizen Action (1972) (a ground-breaking book that called for legal standing and access to the courts for citizens and urged responsibility and duty for government and everyone to protect the natural bounty of this world).
  • The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention  (a seminal landmark article that compiled and offered the public trust doctrines as a broad and deep approach to address the systemic threats to our most special places, parks, and common waters).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970 (the first model and adopted citizen suit law to protect the air, water, natural resources and the public trust in those natural features and our common air and water).
  • Takings, Private Property and Public Rights, 81 Yale L. J. 149 (1971) ( some property, whether public or private, are so inextricably related to public health and welfare that protection of such lands and features preserves what is public without taking private property rights, where none can be said to have been truly expected in the first place).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970: A Progress Report, 70 Mich L. Rev. 1003 (1972) (Joe Sax and Roger Connors published a thorough monitoring of cases and decisions under the new MEPA; Roger Connor was the first of several Professor Sax “protégés” who worked under him to help interpret and understand the facts, data, and law evolving under what was later labeled by the Michigan Supreme Court “the common law of environmental quality”).
  • Environmental Citizen Suits: Three Years Experience under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, 4 Ecology L. Q. 1 (1974) (Joe DiMento published the second “report” on the MEPA with Joe Sax, this time fleshing out some of the political, statistical, and jurisprudential implications).
  • Michigan Environmental Protection Act in its Sixth Year, 53 J. Urban. L. 589 (1976, University of Detroit Law School) (Jeff published the next report, this time shaping the growing number of trial and appellate court decisions, upholding the constitutionality of the act, demanding high level of judicial review, and imposing duties on government to consider impacts and prevent and minimize environmental degradation).
  • Helpless Giants: National Parks and the Regulation of Private Land, pp. 108-109, 75 Mich L. Rev. 239 (1976) (Joe Sax had a passion for wilderness, particularly protecting the values of our national park system, and considered the authority of the National Park Service to protect those values from activities that impacted them adjacent or near the parks).
  • Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks (University of Michigan Press, 1980) (Joe Sax’s reasoned plea for preserving the values of wilderness and the National Parks through deep personal engagement in the parks to appreciate the “genius” of what energized the creation of the park in the first place).
  • William O. Douglas Award (for extraordinary legal achievement, Sierra Club, 1984).
  • Distinguished Water Attorney Award (Water Education Foundation, 2004).
  • The Limits of Private Rights in Public Waters, 19 Env’t’l Law J. 473 (1989). (Professor Sax pointed out that for 2,000 years water has been understood as public in the sense that it is within the crown or sovereign people, represented by government; and at the very least water has never been owned by anyone, and as such there is no right and should be no expectation of private ownership of water, merely use consistent with the larger public values represented by these common waters).
  • Playing Darts with Rembrandt (University of Michigan Press, 1999) (Here, Joe Sax goes beyond the boundaries of traditional thought, and in riveting short-story like tales of battles, scars and defacing or covering up great works of art and culture makes the case for limitations on the right to destroy or impair art, that is, unless you are the artist her/himself).
  • The Blue Planet Prize (Glass Foundation, 2007) (awarded to Joe Sax for his pioneering work and invention of the environmental citizen suit to democratize a government too much influenced by its own ends or the ends of those who influence it and protect to a degree the ecosystem on whom all depend).

I could go on, but the above selected titles are only illustrative of how deep his passion and love for beauty and the natural world and his sense of justice ran (and, through his legacy, will run). And these writings reveal how his modest but irrefutable strong force of reason and values overwhelmed (and will continue to overwhelm) or piqued his audience.

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