Attorney fights for underdog while balancing law, ag
By MATTHEW WEAVER
CONNELL, Wash. -- Toni Meacham knew she would be a lawyer when she was in fifth grade.
"I saw the hardships agriculture was facing," she said. "They needed somebody to protect them, and I've always liked to take on the underdog."
Based in Connell, Wash., Meacham is one of the attorneys defending Dayton, Wash., rancher Joe Lemire. He challenged a Washington Department of Ecology order to make changes to protect nearby Pataha Creek, saying there's no evidence his ranch caused pollution.
Meacham said she felt Lemire definitely qualified as an underdog.
"Everything was stacked against him and nobody was willing to help him. Everybody told him, 'You need to compromise, you need to settle this with Ecology,'" Meacham said. "He just didn't want to do it."
The case is before the state Supreme Court.
"What a win for Joe really means is Ecology has to follow the rules," Meacham said. "It has to actually have some scientific basis for what they're doing, they can't just go and run over somebody."
Lemire said he has become close with Meacham and her family.
"She has the same values (we) do, I guess you'd call them old-fashioned, but they're not, they're the right values," Lemire said.
Meacham is executive director of the non-profit Washington Agricultural Legal Foundation (WALF). The foundation promotes agricultural private property rights and water rights.
The board -- consisting of representatives of the dairy and cattle industry -- decides whether she takes on a case because it impacts agriculture as a whole.
If not, Meacham will determine whether the farmer wants her to represent him as a private attorney or if different representation is available, depending on the farmer's circumstances.
Washington Cattlemen's Association executive vice president Jack Field is on the WALF board. He says it's more important to have such a foundation and leadership like Meacham than ever.
"When we look at cases, she understands the way producers approach an issue, and people with a nonlegal background," Field said. "When necessary, she can rein us in and say, 'The law only allows for 'X,' so we've got to make sure we stay within this.' She's not going to pull any punches when an issue's on the line."
Meacham practices law and works full time on the KT Ranch in Connell with her parents, sister and brother-in-law and her husband, Troy, running 100 head of Hereford, Braford and Angus cattle and 70 head of foundation quarter horses. Having that background helps Meacham to determine whether a farmer has a case.
"I just have an innate understanding," she said. "When somebody comes to me and talks about crops, ag, cows, different breeds, I actually know what they're talking about."
Government oversight is one of the biggest issues Meacham is working on for agriculture. She hopes to see her cases reach outcomes that will protect agriculture so that "we don't have to keep having the same fight over and over again."
"Agriculture in general needs to stop bowing down to government and start standing up for themselves," she said. "Make government entities prove what they're saying about us. I want to see the scientific basis of what you're telling me -- where is the testing, where is the proof?"
Occupation: Attorney, executive director of the Washington State Agriculture Legal Foundation
Hometown: Connell, Wash.
Family: Married to husband Troy, two sons, ages 2 and 4
Education: Associate of arts degree from Columbia Basin College, bachelor of arts degree in animal science from Washington State University, juris doctor degree at University of Idaho