Montana health department changes chief counsel qualifications, recruits D.C. lawyer

By: - February 28, 2022 5:08 pm

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

When the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services dropped the requirement that its chief legal counsel be a member of the state bar, it opened the door for the Gianforte administration to hire a conservative heavyweight from Washington, D.C., to lead the legal division of the state’s largest agency.

Paula Stannard has a law degree from Stanford University, and she served as deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush and as senior counselor for the agency under President Donald Trump.

In 2016, Politico described her as Trump’s “point person on health care reform.” 

Her record as a federal appointee and in private practice shows a staunch ally to the GOP governor’s and Republican-majority Legislature’s conservative agenda, and she’s already helped bolster such policies in Montana. In September, for example, Stannard defended a controversial emergency rule announced by Gov. Greg Gianforte to allow parents of children in public schools to “opt out” of mask mandates for health, religious or moral reasons.

During the Obama administration, Stannard worked at Alston & Bird, which describes itself as a leading international firm with one of the largest health law practices in the U.S. She’s been active with the Federalist Society, a legal organization that advocates for freedom and individual liberty, and she represented a conservative Christian college that filed a lawsuit in 2012 over Affordable Care Act contraceptive benefits. 

More recently, Stannard was involved in a political controversy with the National Institutes of Health over restricting the use of fetal tissue in research. In 2020, top U.S. House Democrats alleged political appointees including Stannard tried to block federal funding for medical research based on an ideological agenda.

Screenshot of DPHHS chief legal counsel Paula Stannard speaking to the Education Committee.

Stannard did not respond to a voicemail or email last week seeking an interview. Health Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt answered some questions via email and praised the chief legal counsel. He did not respond to a request late last week or Monday for an interview with Stannard.

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A change the state Health Department made in the minimum job qualifications for chief legal counsel appeared to pave the way for the hire of a lawyer with Stannard’s background. In 2018, the job advertisement said a qualified chief legal counsel candidate “must be admitted to practice law in Montana,” but last year, the minimum qualification required “admission to practice law in Montana, or admission within one year from the date of hire.”

In an email, Ebelt did not address whether the agency made the change in anticipation of hiring Stannard, who led roughly 450 attorneys at the federal agency, but he touted Stannard’s experience, “high caliber and exemplary qualifications.”

“She has effectively served the people of Montana for nearly seven months, and her performance has been and continues to be outstanding,” Ebelt said in an email. “We are fortunate to have her as part of our team.”

The State Bar of Montana does not list Stannard as one of its active members. However, Joseph Menden, director of communications with the Bar, said it isn’t unusual for lawyers who are admitted to practice in other jurisdictions to initially work in the state without a license.

“It’s not uncommon for attorneys who are licensed in other states to come on a temporary basis as long as there are other lawyers practicing that can sign off on what they’re doing,” Menden said.

The Health Department website lists 16 attorneys in addition to the chief legal counsel and deputy. All of the lawyers besides the chief are identified as active members of the Bar in its member directory, including some who have been active in Montana for more than a decade.

The state administers the Bar exam every year in February and July, but Menden said there’s another option for someone with Stannard’s experience: She can petition the Montana Supreme Court to be allowed to practice in the state. He said it is common for lawyers who have engaged in active practice in other jurisdictions and meet requirements in Montana to be admitted on motion by the court.

“She’s been practicing for a long time,” Menden said.

Once a lawyer passes the Bar or is granted permission by the court to practice in the state, he said the lawyer can remain active in Montana by meeting continuing education requirements, paying dues and license fees and following the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct.

Ebelt did not address Stannard’s status with the state Bar. The chief legal counsel also did not respond to a request for comment on what drew her to the post in Montana or whether positions she has advocated for in health care in the past are in line with work taking place at the public health agency here, such as Medicaid expansion.

In 2009, the Federalist Society listed Stannard as part of a panel debating the role of government in health care, and in 2010, the organization listed her as a speaker on health care reform: “ObamaCare: What is it? Is it Constitutional? What are the consequences?” On the panel, Stannard argued that “ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care is “good, charitable and morally right,” according to the Federalist Society.

“But establishing a right to health care in statute means that there is a corresponding obligation on the part of someone – usually the government – to provide it,” she said. “Once it is accepted that it is the obligation of government to provide health care, we would likely cease to view it as a moral and charitable obligation on ourselves.”

On the same panel, she spoke against universal health care, arguing Congress would first need to spell out the rights and obligations associated with it: “American consumers would not buy a pig in a poke, and Congress should not adopt the legislative equivalent.”

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In Montana, Stannard appears to be well aligned with the Gianforte administration’s and Legislature’s right-to-life stance and push to restrict aborton. A story in Rewire noted Stannard represented Criswell College of Dallas in the Christian institution’s attempt in 2012 to block an emergency contraceptives benefit, alleging the “abortion-inducing drugs” violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. At the time, a district court judge dismissed the case in an order that said the challenge was not ripe, similar to at least 16 other related suits over contraception coverage at the time. (In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of Hobby Lobby in a separate but similar legal fight.)

After Trump was elected, Stannard drew notice in health policy circles when she was identified as a key player to drive the incoming president’s health care agenda. Health care media outlet STAT quoted Ladd Wiley, who had worked with Stannard as a Health and Human Services lawyer and was then in private practice, in a November 2016 story about the presidential transition and professionals slated to be influencers: “Paula is about (as) smart a person as you’ll ever meet.” At the same time, Stannard came from Alston & Bird, which the story said had earned $4.4 million that year lobbying for health care companies and trade groups, so she also drew criticism. In the same story, Michael Carome, head of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, denounced her working for the federal government as hypocritical: “I think this reflects the fact that Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp is not going to take place.”

Stannard did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment on what drew her to Montana, but the job here likely represents a healthy pay cut for an experienced lawyer who has worked at a white-shoe law firm. In 2021, Abovethelaw.com listed the pay for a seven-year associate on the U.S. partnership track at Alston at $350,000+ and a first-year at $205,000, noting the “big money.” 

As part of the state Health Department’s 2021 recruitment, the agency updated the pay structure in the chief legal counsel recruitment from 2018. In 2018, the salary range was listed as $105,992 to $137,830, but in 2021, the salary was listed at a flat $116,480. An online database of state employee salaries notes Stannard’s pay at $62.50 an hour, or $130,000.

Ebelt noted an agency review showed compensation to be low and said salaries were adjusted accordingly: “As part of the reorganization of the state’s largest, most complex agency, we determined that compensation for senior staff was well below market, and we made necessary corrections to recruit and retain highly qualified, experienced public servants, like Paula, for Montana.”

In response to a request for clarification about when the pay bumps took place and if the position was reposted with an updated salary, Ebelt provided the following: “The position was not re-advertised. The position had been posted and open for approximately three months, during which numerous interviews were conducted and the acting chief legal counsel informed DPHHS leadership of his intent to accept a position at another agency. Given the critical and time-sensitive nature of this role, DPHHS determined it prudent to negotiate within its authority and hire the most qualified candidate then known to the department.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to add a response from DPHHS to clarify the timing of pay bumps.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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