Born and raised in Chicago, Sax graduated from Harvard University in 1957 and then earned a J.D. degree in 1959 from the University of Chicago Law School. After a few years in private practice and at the Department of Justice he began teaching, first with the University of Colorado in 1962 and then at the University of Michigan in 1965. He joined the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 1986.
Sax was involved in environmental and conservation law from early in his career, working with the Sierra Club in Colorado. drafting Michigan's environmental law (known as the "Sax Act") and working on a variety of water resource cases in California.
It was while he was teaching law students at the University of Colorado that he realized that there was no satisfactory theory accounting for the public interest in natural resources law, and that his work was "grooming lawyers who might one day help companies extract resources, mainly from public lands."
- Playing Darts With a Rembrandt: Public and Private Rights to Cultural Treasures (1999)
- Mountains Without Handrails
- Water Law--Planning and Policy
- Water Law--Cases and Commentary
- Defending the Environment
- Scholarly articles
- Blue Planet Prize - 2007, from the Asahi Glass Foundation ("likened to a Nobel for environmental science")
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow
- Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, University of Michigan
- Elizabeth Haub Environmental Prize of the Free University of Brussels
- Audubon Society's Conservationist of the Year Award
- William O. Douglas Legal Achievement Award from the Sierra Club
- Environmental Quality Award of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Douglas Martin, "Joseph Sax, Who Pioneered Environmental Law, Dies at 78" (obituary), New York Times, March 10, 2014.
- Joseph L. Sax (faculty profile), Berkeley Law (last visited March 11, 2014).
- "Boalt Mourns Loss of Joseph Sax and Henry Ramsey, Jr. '63", Boalt Hall eNews, April 2014.
- Dan Farber, "Berkeley Law: Environmental Law", SFGate, Feb. 26, 2012.