Chicago’s Lakefront: The Rise of the Public Trust Doctrine (and Much More)

Urbs in Horto”— city in a garden—is the motto Chicago’s founders chose upon the city’s incorporation on March 4, 1837. At the time, this was more of a vision than a statement of fact, as the city had few public parks then, and preserving its existing open spaces seemed uncertain at best. Given the industrial waterfronts in many other large cities, it is a marvel that Chicagoans made that early vision a reality, at least along the water, by creating the city’s magnificent lakefront parks and protecting open space over nearly two centuries. How did it happen, and what are the lessons for urban development more generally? The definitive account is provided in Lakefront, a remarkable new book twenty years in the making, coauthored by Marquette Law School Dean (and Chicago native) Joseph D. Kearney and Columbia University’s Thomas W. Merrill.

Lakefront is, at its core, a story about Chicago and the development of its world-renowned lakefront. But Kearney and Merrill also make a significant contribution in untangling the American development of the public trust doctrine, which has been called “unquestionably one of the most important elements of U.S. natural resources law.”[1] The Supreme Court has recognized the doctrine’s ancient origin and its roots in Roman law.[2] Scholars have traced it to the Code of Justinian. Today the doctrine is generally thought to protect and preserve certain natural resources of a “special character,” through a perpetual trust intended to prevent the unimpeded exercise of private rights upon them. But clarifying the doctrine’s operational reach has proven difficult, and it has evolved into many different strains of varying strength primarily governed by state common law. However, all agree that Justice Stephen Field’s 1892 opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois was the moment at which the doctrine became a prominent feature of American law. Lakefront provides groundbreaking new details and a blow-by-blow account of how the case originated from the battles between public and private rights on the Chicago lakefront.

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Marquette’s presence at the Global Water Center helps Milwaukee lead in Water Innovation

Less than a mile away from the Law School, some of the country’s most important work is taking place at the Global Water Center, led by the Water Council. Water may seem like a basic right to most Americans, but across the globe, it is often a precious commodity. This will soon become a new reality in the water rich Midwest, as the demand on area water resources leads to an increasingly critical supply. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that pumping of groundwater in the Chicago-Milwaukee area from 1864 to 1980, has lowered groundwater levels by as much as 900 feet. Below is a map that illuminates the critical depletion affecting U.S. ground water supplies.Groundwater depletion in the U.S.

From Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008), USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5079.

Facing the critical groundwater depletion taking place across the country over the last 100 years, Milwaukee non-profit, the Water Council, is rising to meet the challenge. The Water Council is dedicated to solving serious global water challenges by supporting innovation in freshwater technology and driving new solutions to a world that increasingly needs them. The Council has led the way through impressive collaboration—connecting 238 water technology businesses and a leadership network of 200 members from around the world. This expertise has included input from several Marquette University departments, including Marquette University Law School.

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Congratulations to Marquette’s Environmental Law Moot Court Team

I intended to write this post in March, upon returning from Spring Break, but 2020 got in the way. Better late than never, as they say; and I would be remiss not to recognize the excellent work of our 2019-20 Environmental Law Moot Court team, consisting of Caleb Tomaszewski and Adam Vanderheyden. The team (pictured here along with coach Dennis Grzezinski) competed in the 2020 National Environmental Law Moot Court Photo of the 2020 environmental law moot court team with a coach.Competition hosted by Pace University in White Plains, New York. Caleb and Adam advanced out of the preliminary rounds to the quarterfinals, where they were narrowly defeated. The team received high praise from several judges, but Caleb reported that the most gratifying aspect was “hearing the judges say that we are ready to advocate in real life.” I appreciate the significant contributions of Dennis Grzezinski, Gabe Johnson-Karp, and Professor Alex Lemann, who coached the team with me. But most of all, bravo to Caleb and Adam on achieving the best placement in years for the Law School in the National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition.

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