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ASU Morrison Prize honors proposal to reform utility laws to combat climate change

photo of Joshua Macey

Joshua C. Macey, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, has been recognized with the 2021 Morrison Prize — an honor established in 2015 and administered through the Program on Law and Sustainability at ASU Law — for his paper on reforming utility laws to combat climate change, “Zombie Energy Laws."

February 16, 2021

Joshua C. Macey, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, believes the time has come for states and the federal government to abandon certain outdated utility laws that are obstructing the nation’s push toward cleaner, more renewable energy sources.

Macey’s arguments are detailed in his paper “Zombie Energy Laws,” which was just awarded the 2021 Morrison Prize — an honor established in 2015 and administered through the Program on Law and Sustainability at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

The ASU Morrison Prize Contest awards a $10,000 prize annually to the authors of the most impactful sustainability-related legal academic article published in North America during the previous year. The prize is named after its benefactor, Richard N. Morrison, who is also a co-founder of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU.

As renewable energy technologies have advanced in recent decades, utility laws have failed to keep up. Now, some outmoded utility laws are increasingly slowing the transition to a sustainable, carbon-free energy system. Fortunately, as Macey explains, by shedding these “zombie laws,” governments could accelerate the country’s progress in combating climate change.

“I was completely thrilled to learn that I had won the Morrison Prize this year and honored to see ‘Zombie Energy Laws’ join the company of the past winners’ brilliant work,” Macey said. “Zombie Energy Laws examines how century-old laws designed to protect consumers in the public utility era are now being used to harm consumers and impede decarbonization goals. I hope that, as the federal government takes a more proactive approach to addressing climate change, it will consider how legacy rules from the public utility era could undermine those efforts.” 

Macey’s winning paper was originally published in the May 2020 issue of the Vanderbilt Law Review. Macey plans to travel to Phoenix to present his article and formally accept the prize at the sixth annual SRP Sustainability Conference of American Legal Educators. The conference is planned for May 14 at ASU Law’s Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix.

Professor Troy Rule, faculty director of the Law and Sustainability Program at ASU Law, said Macey, like past Morrison Prize winners, has developed inventive ideas that could facilitate significant progress in the environmental sustainability movement.

“Professor Macey’s article boldly challenges the status quo, persuasively describing how certain utility laws that presently obstruct the sustainable energy transition could be restructured into powerful decarbonization tools,” Rule said. “We look forward to hearing Professor Macey present his article at ASU Law and are deeply grateful to Richard Morrison for his generous support of this prestigious prize.”

Each year, law professors from throughout the world who have recently published articles in North American legal academic journals are eligible to enter the Morrison Prize contest. All entries undergo independent review and scoring by a group of professors, not affiliated with ASU, who teach in environmental sustainability-related areas at various North American law schools. The scores from these judges are aggregated to determine the prize winner.

Past winners

In 2020, Vanderbilt University Law School professors Jim Rossi and Christopher Serkin won the Morrison Prize for their insightful article, “Energy Exactions,” which was published in the spring 2019 issue of the Cornell Law Review. The article described how local governments could better leverage their land-use regulatory authority to drive substantial increases in rooftop solar energy installations and energy-efficient real estate development.

In 2019, a six-author team won the Morrison Prize for an unprecedented analysis of the structuring of conservation easements in the face of rapid climate change. The article, titled “Climate change challenges for land conservation: Rethinking conservation easements, strategies, and tools,” was co-written by Federico Cheever, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; Jessica Owley, director of the environmental law program at University of Buffalo — State University of New York; Adena R. Rissman, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology; M. Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at the World Wide Fund for Nature; Barton H. Thompson Jr., a professor of natural resources at Stanford Law School; and W. William Weeks, director of the Conservation Law Clinic at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.

In 2018, Minnesota Law School professor Hari M. Osofsky and Jacqueline Peel, associate dean of the University of Melbourne Law School in Australia, won the prize for their academic article “Energy Partisanship.” They outlined the critical importance of circumventing fierce political divisions in order to combat climate change and provided guidance for doing so.

In 2017, Vanderbilt University professors Michael P. Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan won the prize for "Beyond Gridlock." The article underscored the difficulties of effecting change through government and highlighted the underutilized potential to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through the private sector.

In 2016, Dave Owen, a professor at University of California, Hastings College of Law, and Colin Aspe, a freshwater conservation adviser at the Nature Conservancy, were the inaugural winners of the Morrison Prize. Their article, “Trading Dams,” described creative new policy approaches for better balancing hydroelectric energy generation and environmental protection on the nation’s river system.

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