Theory at Work
Prof. Amy Monahan is a tax & health law expert with a penchant for pensions. Her nationally recognized acumen and insights straddle multiple fields.
Tax class may evoke fear in the minds of many lawyers, but Professor Amy Monahan is not one of those. As a law student, she mastered math and is now admired by colleagues for her rare ability to not only navigate intricate financial detail but also predict its ramifications in the real world. She is widely recognized across the country for her painstaking and influential work in public pensions and health care reform.
“A great big nerd who gets curious about intractable problems that other people find overwhelming” is how Professor William McGeveran describes Monahan, who was awarded the American Law Institute's prestigious Young Scholars Medal in 2013. Few others embrace what he calls the “rococo logic puzzle of federal law,” where each piece affects every other piece in ways unforeseen by many. Whether she is tackling an unfunded pension crisis or how to provide health care to uninsured Americans, “Every time she writes an article, it’s because she has perceived some kind of problem those complicated laws will cause ordinary people,” McGeveran says.
A native Californian educated at Johns Hopkins University and Duke University School of Law, Monahan first considered international law, signing up for a tax law class only because “they said everyone should take tax law,” she says. “I thought it would be awful, but I ended up enjoying it.” As a summer associate, she pursued various avenues but discovered a home in the employee benefits practice group. Like tax law, employee benefits law involved “that detailed sort of puzzle created by complex statutes and accompanying regulations, but it was also about people,” she says. “For me it was a great mix of highly technical legal reasoning and subject matter that was inherently interesting.”
Monahan practiced with Sidley Austin LLP, Chicago, before she began teaching at Notre Dame and the University of Missouri law schools. In 2009, shortly before she left Missouri to join the Minnesota Law faculty, her academic career took a significant detour. “An economist walked across the quad to ask if I knew anything about state and local pension plans,” she explains. “I said no. He was hoping to convince me to write a paper on a topic that no one seemed to know anything about.”
The paper he convinced her to write, for a conference on teacher pensions, propelled her into the public policy arena. The California Supreme Court, for example, cited her work in a 2019 pension case. She speaks frequently about the legal issues surrounding public pension plans at national conferences attended by state legislators, state and city budget officers, and municipal lenders.
“In many states and cities, politicians want to do the right thing,” she says. “My role is helping them understand what the law allows or doesn’t allow them to do.” That law can apply to a pension plan’s front end as a tool to force contributions, in the middle to manage funds, or at the back end to address potential shortfalls. Apart from economists, Monahan says, few understand how distressed state and local pension plans can affect all of us.
In 2010-11, Monahan served on the Institute of Medicine's Committee on the Determination of Essential Health Benefits, where helping to define which medical treatments and services health insurance plans must cover as part of the Affordable Care Act was a career highlight. “I got to see policy-making up close,” she says, noting that even though the approach recommended in the consensus report she and her colleagues created was not implemented due to political considerations, she learned valuable lessons.
Named a Stanley V. Kinyon Teacher of the Year in 2022, Monahan shares such lessons with enthusiasm, standing in front of the classroom, touchscreen in hand, scratching notes, walking her students through a particular thought process. “For something as abstract as employee benefits tax code, it’s hands-on,” McGeveran says.
“It’s really fun for me to teach,” Monahan says. She is delighted when students pursue an employee benefits practice and equally happy to facilitate their understanding of the economic life skills they will need in the real world, as future employees and eventual retirees.
“One of her specialties is playing things out six steps ahead,” adds McGeveran, who also cites Monahan’s participation in daily Zoom meetings during COVID while she was serving as associate dean. Her careful, analytical, thoughtful approach to the contemporary puzzle of masks, testing, and science was vital in getting the Law School through that time, he says. “She sees untangling the knots as a means to an end. She thinks about what effect it’s going to have. That is why her work is actually influencing public policy.”
Cathy Madison in a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.