Former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen died this week at 52. Credit: Courtesy Photo

Kristin Hansen, a former Republican lawmaker, attorney and recently departed top deputy to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, died Thursday at 52, according to the state Department of Justice. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Knudsen named Hansen as chief deputy attorney general shortly before he took office, and she served in that role until late May when she announced she was leaving the DOJ. 

Knudsen’s office confirmed her death in a statement Friday morning, ushering in condolences from top Republicans in the state.

“Kris was a dear friend, a conservative leader, and an amazing woman who dedicated her life to others,” Attorney General Austin Knudsen said Friday. 

“With the passing of Kris Hansen, we’ve lost a committed public servant and patriot, and I’ve lost a friend,” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said in an emailed statement. “Her indomitable spirit left an impact on all who knew her.”

The Attorney General’s office did not specifically explain why Hansen left her office in May, stating only that she had to “attend to personal and family matters.” 

Her tenure with the Department of Justice placed her squarely in the middle of the separation-of-powers conflict between Republican lawmakers and the state Supreme Court, representing the Legislature in its attempt to subpoena troves of judicial records related to, among other areas, GOP-backed bills that would likely face court challenges. 

Hansen was also a key figure in the office’s dispute with St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena, which saw the hospital accusing the agency of threatening legal ramifications after doctors declined to administer unapproved treatments to a local Republican activist and COVID-19 patient. A legislative investigative report found that members of the activist’s family contacted Hansen directly to raise concerns about her treatment. 

Prior to working for Knudsen, Hansen served as the chief legal counsel to then-State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who did not seek a second term and instead ran for Congress.

Originally from Illinois, Hansen’s first taste of the Montana Legislature came as a clerk for Montana House Republican leadership in the 2005 session, according to an archived version of an old campaign website. 

After a tour as a legal assistance attorney with an aviation brigade in Iraq, Hansen returned to Montana to serve as chief deputy attorney for Hill County. 

She was elected to the Legislature in 2011, joining a freshman class that included Knudsen, among others. She quickly made waves by sponsoring an ultimately failed bill that would have voided a Missoula city ordinance that provided protection from employment and housing discrimination based on gender expression and sexual orientation, among other classifications. 

“(The Missoula ordinance) sets up a separate judicial process for businesses in Missoula that is outside the realm of the Human Rights Act, but only on three specific classifications,” Hansen told the Billings Gazette at the time. “When the state of Montana sets up a procedure for the resolution of claims — for all discrimination claims — then all discrimination claims should go through that procedure.”

Hansen was also heavily involved in school finance and charter school issues, serving as House Education Committee chair in 2013 and supporting an early version of a bill to create education savings accounts to help pupils attend charter, private or out-of-district public schools at the expense of some public funding for in-district schools. 

Though that bill failed, a law creating a tax credit for donations to fund scholarships to private schools passed a session later. Hansen would go on to found Big Sky Scholarships, the state’s first such tax credit-funded student scholarship organization to emerge under the law.

Hansen’s advocacy on that front continued up to the 2021 session when she testified as a proponent for Senate Bill 329, legislation allowing public money to go into a savings account that would reimburse parents for private education costs for students with special needs.

“Kris Hansen was a beacon of light to anyone who knew her,” Republican Senate President Mark Blasdel said in a statement Friday. “Always dedicated to any task she put her mind to, she was a force to be reckoned with and served our country and our state in many capacities over the years.”

Hansen graduated from Augustana College in 1992, before embarking on a tour in Kuwait and East Africa with the Central Intelligence Agency at the height of the agency’s covert operations in Somalia. 

“She wrote a letter asking the CIA if they needed any help. Can you believe that?” her mother, Sue Hansen, told the Kankakee, Illinois Daily Journal in 2008, as part of a story about her daughter’s military tenure. “They trained her, gave her an internship and sent her to Kuwait.”

Hansen received a law degree from the John Marshall Law School, now known as the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. After graduating in 2002, she clerked for Judge Bruce Black of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the northern district of Illinois. She then clerked for Montana Supreme Court Justice John Warner and worked as a judge advocate in the Montana National Guard. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.