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J. Justin Meehan- J. Justin Meehan, Attorney at Law

J. Justin Meehan and Daizy Meehan

J. Justin Meehan and Daizy Meehan

Civil-rights attorney J. Justin Meehan believes that if you live in a community, you shouldn’t just take from it — you’ve got to give back. In 40 years of practicing law in St. Louis, he said that’s what he’s tried to do.

“I never turned my back on someone in need,” he said. “I didn’t make much money, but it’s what I did. It’s part of my commitment.”

A New York native, Meehan is the son of an attorney who worked in a corporate environment but demonstrated a strong sense of social responsibility. As a self-described hippie in the 1960s, Meehan began his college career at Fordham University but left law school there after his first year.

In an effort to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam, he left New York and landed in St. Louis. There, he met people who marveled that he’d given up on a chance to become an attorney — both as a career choice and as an opportunity to effect change in the world.

Meehan returned to college, graduating cum laude from Saint Louis University in 1969 and earning his law degree there in 1975. Within his first 30 days of practicing law, Ray Howard of Howard, Richardson & Singer hired him and assigned him to a murder case. Meehan said he didn’t have any experience and “looked like a fool,” when trying to pick a jury. But he went out into the community to gather interviews and information for the case, and ultimately his client was freed.

After two years with Howard, Richardson and Singer, Meehan became a solo practitioner. He’s remained so ever since, and he’s established a reputation for taking on the cases that to others seem hopeless and the clients who aren’t always able to pay.

Thanks to Meehan’s work in State v. Williams on behalf of a woman who had been charged with murdering her partner, the self-defense arguments once employed by battered spouses have been extended to all battered women.

As a result of his representation in the excessive-force case Bell v. Board of Police Commissioners, citizens of St. Louis now find it easier to file police-misconduct complaints.

He’s helped students gain reinstatement to schools following their expulsion for speaking out about school issues, and he’s taken on numerous cases involving allegations of civil-rights violations.

Meehan tries to find justice for people who often are denied access to it, and he “fearlessly stands in the gap for the oppressed, and has dedicated his life to the cause,” a nominator wrote.

That approach to his career made for “rarely feast and a lot of famine” in his household, Meehan said, but his family shared and supported his sense of social commitment. He and his wife, Daizy, have two sons; one is a law student, and the other is a practicing attorney in St. Louis with whom Meehan sometimes works.

Forty years may have passed since he began his law career, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He still sees areas of law he wants to change, among them workers’ compensation rules and legalization of marijuana.

Today, he said, “the social revolutionary happens to be a lawyer.”