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The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal concept that has its basis in ancient Roman law and English Common Law. Being a legal construct, it has been subject to interpretation causing it to evolve over the centuries. Arguably some of the most radical shifts in its judicial application have occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth-century American courts. Shapeshifting from a doctrine used to prevent monopolization of public waterways to a blunt instrument wielded by the interests of the environmentalism movement. Subordinating water usage rights and other forms of private property to loosen conditions that public trust law has been applied. Some scholars such as Joseph Sax perceiving a contextual application of the concept as being too narrow. Believing that having more malleability with the application of the doctrine will help sustains its core function (p.4). This function being putting common resources to the best use for society. Rather than allow these resources to be sold off and alienated by private interests.

At first glance, Sax’s assessment of the doctrine may seem fair to those who are concerned about economic equality. The keen insights of legal scholar Richard Epstein provide an interesting perspective on the Public Trust Doctrine. He essentially likens the concept to be an inverted version of Eminent Domain law (p.8). Meaning that the Public Trust Doctrine mitigates private individuals from commandeering public lands without just compensation. Implying that an individual for example buying public land should not be doing so below the market price. Mirroring how just compensation is an implied right in any takings case as depicted under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.  In a society where taxes have been collected this premise makes sense. As taxpayers being the primary contributors to public funds, they own all public assets. In instances, where the costs of selling a public good to a private party outweigh the benefits it can be disputed whether the asset(s) should be sold.

Epstein successfully demonstrates the reciprocal nature of both Eminent Domain and the Public Trust Doctrine. The reason why both legal concepts parallel each other is the fact they are at their core interpretations of property rights. Both provide a framework for the conditions under which property can be transferred from one party to another. One describing the contingencies under which private property can be transferred for public use. The other presenting the conditions under which public property can be alienated for the use of a private party. If we are to hold property rights in high esteem both are subject to the conditions of the Takings Clause.  Unfortunately, both concepts wavered in front of protecting property rights. Proponents of a liberated form of the Public Trust Doctrine have no problem utilizing its amorphous nature to circle property rights to achieve environmental objectives. Theorists such as Sax show little concern for this erosion of property rights. Anything even remotely of a Classical Liberal disposition can be nothing but horrified by the diminished regard for private property in the American legal system.  In terms of the property being misappropriated to satisfy environmental objectives, it is easy to point to Sax being the linchpin for this decades-long trend.

It is not fair or intellectually honest to point all of the blame on Sax, technically the unfettered application of the doctrine began back in the nineteenth century.  Formulating from the seminal case Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892) considered by many to layout the rubric for the modern American interpretation of the doctrine. However, legal scholars such as Richard J. Lazarus point out that there was a precipitous change in the interpretation of the legal doctrine in the years following the 1970s (p.3). Displaying that there was a radical shift in the jurisprudence surrounding the doctrine that happened to coincide not only with the insights of Sax but also with the nascent period of the Environmental movement. Surmising that the environmental movement hastened the development of the doctrine isn’t at all outlandish. Especially considering it has traditionally been utilized as a legal construct to manage public waterways. Shedding some light on why property rights and environmentalism have historically been at odds. Truly prudent environmentalism manifests itself in sound resource usage and allocation. This can only take place in a world where property rights are enforced. Not nullified through arbitrary and tilted interpretations of legal traditions. Particularly ones that have never even been fully fleshed out in statutory law that take on capricious attributes. Merely shift due to a change on the whim of social trends.

If good resource management aligns itself with good economic policy, why couldn’t more market-friendly approaches to environmental problems be proposed as a compromise? At the very least devise compromises that respect the ownership of private property. One such compromise could entail a theoretical statutory codification of the Public Trust Doctrine. This would mandate compensation regardless of conditions under which land is transferred by the state. While the author is not completely comfortable with the idea of formal written law, this would be a pragmatic solution for two reasons. First off, it would operate as a formal constraint against loose interpretations of the Public Trust Doctrine. Second, it would demand compensation to those who were experience damages by the transfer of a property. Through a formal revision, not only can the doctrine be constrained to its original purpose it also will serve as a safeguard against unjust takings.

13 thoughts on “Public Trust Doctrine: Part I

        1. In your professional opinion is it fair to compare the Public Trust Doctrine to the Commerce Clause. Both seem to have been abused for all kinds of peripheral political interests. Both have been stretched well beyond their original legal function.

          However, the commerce clause has been misapplied in a much more sundry array of ways than the PTD has been

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose you could put it that way. I would like to see more positions that favor environmentalist approaches that respect sound economics and property rights. Which is possible. Part of the reason I have taken to the market-based environmentalism movement is that is an intriguing puzzle to solve.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Definitely interesting! Looking forward to part II

    I haven’t actually read much about market-based environmentalism. I’ll have to look into it more deeply before I can say anything even half intelligent about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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