What? Another homage to Joe Sax?

Posted on October 22, 2014 by Jeffrey Haynes

Yes, and here’s why:  Joseph Sax’s writings remain as fresh today as when they were published. This blog — in noting his death earlier this year — described Sax’s revival of the public trust doctrine, for which he is justly famous. But some of Sax’s other studies stay relevant, and not only to the generation of environmental lawyers he taught at the University of Michigan Law School and at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

Sax’s career focused not on the intricacies of pollution control statutes, but on the broader issues of allocation and management of scarce resources. The idea that public trust resources ought not to be diverted from public use, discussed in this blog, is the beginning. Citing Sax, the California Supreme Court in the Mono Lake decision injected public trust concepts into California prior appropriation doctrine.  As noted recently in this blog, California water allocation law continues to slouch toward the present. These issues show why Sax enjoyed teaching water law.

Sax delighted in challenging conventional views. In an early article, he exploded the myth, exemplified by supporters’ confidence in the National Environmental Policy Act, of “the redemptive quality of procedural reform.”  In 2002, he spoke at the University of Michigan about the Great Lakes. The assembled faithful expected him to reinforce their view that not one drop of water should leave the Great Lakes basin. Instead, to their dismay, he demonstrated why water allocation decisions should be based on an evaluation of alternatives, even if that meant water withdrawals from the Great Lakes. Some of the water allocation issues among riparian states that he explores in that speech were recently heard by the Supreme Court in Kansas v. Nebraska, concerning interpretation of an interstate water allocation formula, and will be considered in Mississippi v. Tennessee, which concerns pumping underground water across state borders.

One of the foundations of environmental law is the takings clause. Sax’s 1964 article, Takings and the Police Power, often cited by the Supreme Court, deserves re-reading for its lucid and compact analysis. Following the Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council decision, Sax imaginatively proposed an economy of nature underlying the market economy while criticizing the majority opinion in Lucas for being the outlier in takings law that we now know it to be. But Sax sympathized with the unfairness of takings law on property owners. Recently he noted that the Supreme Court has exhausted its efforts to develop a coherent takings theory. But, he said, that fact brings no solace to a late-in-the-game developer who, denied permits by a municipality that gave away the entire increment of infrastructure amenities to earlier-in-time developers, unfairly receives no compensation.

Management of public lands is a large part of environmental law. As we learned at the 2014 annual meeting, this College is embarking on a new initiative for East Africa community land use and natural resources rights. The underpinnings for such policies are found in Sax’s 1980 book Mountains Without Handrails, which proves the preservationist’s view of national park management. But management of private land adjacent to parks is equally important, as Sax explored in Helpless Giants: The National Parks and Regulation of Private Land. Sax was inspired to write this article when, after hard hiking through rhododendron “hells” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park rising to the Appalachian Trail, he was surprised to see a luxury hotel — located on private land adjacent to the park — thrusting up beyond a forested ridge of the park.

Sax’s foray into the community values inhering in public and private art collections, Playing Darts with a Rembrandt, is echoed in the recent debate over whether the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts should be sold to pay the city’s creditors. Although disclaiming an exact fit with the public trust doctrine, the Michigan Attorney General opined that the DIA held the art as a charitable trust for the public.

Sax received many awards and much praise. His extensive scholarship was reviewed by his peers in a 1998 Ecology Law Quarterly symposium introduced by ACOEL Fellow Richard Lazarus. He received the Asahi Blue Planet Prize in part for drafting the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the citizen-suit statute discussed here. If these recognitions do not convince you, reading Sax in the original should persuade you of the continuing relevance of his scholarship.



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