‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ New Jersey beachgoers might soon have another item to add to the extensive list. A key state legislative committee advanced a bill to clarify the state’s public trust doctrine as it relates to public access to beaches in the Garden State. It’s the latest example of the truism that old laws are often good laws.
Saga Along the Jersey Shore
This is the latest in a long line of New Jersey beach access wars. In December 2015, a state appellate court struck down regulations implemented by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, citing the state Department of Environmental Protection’s lack of authority to implement the rules. A similar, earlier court ruling struck down regulations from the preceding Corzine administration.
It’s an epic tale involving environmentalists and property owners. So perhaps it’s fitting that an ancient Roman legal doctrine is at the center of the dispute.
Bread, Circuses, and Free Beach Access
The “public trust doctrine” is a concept tracing back to the Roman Empire. Transmitted through English common law to the American colonies, it was adopted by state governments following independence from Great Britain. The Emperor Justinian’s Book II of The Institutes of Justinian, which dates from 535 A.D., covers it pretty well:
By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is forbidden to approach the seashore, provided that he respects habitations, monuments, and buildings which are not, like the sea, subject only to the law of nations.
It’s far from the only contemporary legal doctrine we received from the Romans, who were a famously litigious people. The laws of product liability owe a lot of their historical development to Roman notions of consumer protection (tip: there were few).