Joseph Lawrence Sax passed away on Sunday March 9, 2014. He was 78. We send our deepest condolences to his three daughters.
Sax was considered “the father of environmental law.” He was the first American attorney to focus his intellect and careful attention almost exclusively on this emerging area. Following Earth Day in 1970, he made the argument that some natural resources — the oceans, other bodies of water, shorelines, the air and portions of land — are so important that they should be treated in the courts as a “public trust,” and that citizens had the right to sue to protect them against government, business and private individuals who might threaten them.
Joseph Sax began teaching at the University of Michigan in 1965 and it was there that he wrote a textbook on water law. In the 1970s, he joined a campaign to stop the use of DDT, which persuaded 39 cities to stop using the pesticide. While teaching at the University of Michigan, Professor Sax began to develop and shape his ideas about environmental protection and a major accomplishment at that time was to promote a state environmental law, which was adopted by the Michigan legislature.
Professor Sax also taught law at University of Colorado and University of California, Berkeley. In addition to textbooks, he has written five books on natural resources law, including: Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks; Legal Control of Water Resources: Cases and Materials; Playing Darts with a Rembrandt: Public and Private Rights in Cultural Treasures; Defending the Environment: A Strategy for Citizen Action; and Defending the Environment: A Handbook for Citizen Action.
During the Clinton Administration, he served as counsel to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and often worked on strategies for protecting endangered species habitat. Always a scholar and gentleman, never attacking personally, he could argue vigorously. He was an inspiration to legal and environmental communities and will be sorely missed.
RRI had the opportunity to speak with Professor Sax in October 2013. You will find two short videos of Huey Johnson’s interview with him at theforcesofnature.com. The first video is about the public trust and the second is about water law.