In Focus: Joseph Sax

Joseph Sax in UC-Berkeley Office, 2007

Joseph Sax, author of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, in his office, 2007.

Joseph L. Sax, the author of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970, was born in Chicago, graduated from Harvard in 1957 and University of Chicago Law in 1959. His legal teaching career began at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1962, where he taught the standard natural resources courses: mining law, oil and gas law, and water law. At this time, he began to examine the underlying tensions in existing legal structures for land use, particularly public and private properties and their management. His inquiries revealed that existing laws often silenced the voices of individual citizens, those most affected by the government's decisions about land use, by requiring that they demonstrate a vested interest to legitimize any environmental concern.

Joseph Sax explains the importance of citizen lawsuits under MEPA, 1970.

In this video, Professor Sax explains how MEPA could transform the relationship between concerned citizens, corporations, and the government.

"What [the courts] have really done is provide a forum for the ordinary citizen to come in and have something to say about his own environmental destiny. They provide an equalizing forum... Opening up the way to what might be thought of as a structure of dialogue, which is really inherent in the democratic process, rather than simply a structure of command."

Joseph Sax Hugging a Tree

Professor Joseph Sax hugging a tree, 1972.

Sax expanded his ideas about the power of the public interest in the book Defending the Environment: A Strategy for Citizen Action published in 1971, shortly after the passage of MEPA. In it, he explains the idea at the core of the law he had drafted: that the courts could be a powerful tool for citizens to keep industries and government agencies accountable. Sax firmly believed in the ideals he had written into MEPA and continued to defend the bill after it passed. He followed the cases filed under MEPA, offering guidance to environmental groups and guarding the law against industries and individuals that hoped to weaken it. Hoping to bring the principles he had developed to defend the environment to a larger population, Sax encouraged other state legislatures to adopt similar laws with citizen lawsuit provisions.

Sax shaped not only the foundations of environmental law but also the perspectives of several generations of environmental lawyers. Fred Krupp, a former student remarked: “He had a fantastic sense of humor, often on display: tongue-in-cheek, cynical, and biting wit. His wry observations about environmental law and politics always amused, but also hit close to home, especially as they related to the profit motives behind most of our country’s environmental issues. His words shaped my views on many issues, even if he might not agree with all of my conclusions." Joseph Sax's ideas helped to create a new legal and academic framework for environmental litigation and his legacy endures through his students, who continue the work he began.


Joseph L. Sax Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

University of Michigan Television Center, “They Teach at Michigan,” 1970, Box 21, Media Resources Center (University of Michigan) Films and Videotapes, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

U-M School of Natural Resources, "Ecology: Man and the Environment," Part 10: "The Law," 1970, Box 8, Media Resources Center (University of Michigan) Records, 1948-1987, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Mrs. Willard E. Wolfe to Dr. Joseph Sax, January 28, 1969, Joan Wolfe Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

"Pesticide Foes Win Court Test," Detroit Free Press, November 11, 1967, 5.

Zygmunt Planter. "Joseph Sax, A Human Kaleidoscope," Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2014): 157-166

Joseph L. Sax, Defending the Environment: A Strategy for Citizen Action (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971)

Joseph L. Sax. "The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention," Michigan Law Review (1969): 470-565

"Sax Fights for Natural Resources," Law Quadrangle Notes (Spring 1967): 13

Carol M. Rose, "Joseph Sax and the Idea of the Public Trust," Faculty Scholarship Series: Paper 1805 (1998)

Fred Krupp, The Legacy of Professor Joe Sax, 4 Mich. J. Envtl. & Admin. L. 179 (2014).