30,000 Things She Didn't Expect

Working in the public sector taught Gay Woodhouse to find the right people

Published in 2020 Mountain States Super Lawyers Magazine

In 1984, leading up to what should have been a routine wisdom teeth extraction, a 17-year-old boy was instructed by his dentist to take a prescription drug. The problem? The dose was 25 times higher than it should have been.

“The pharmacist, who was a young woman, called the dentist and said, ‘There’s got to be a mistake here. I don’t want to sell this. That’s not a dose that’s recommended,’” recalls Gay Woodhouse. “And [the dentist] said, ‘Who’s the dentist and who’s the pharmacist?’”

What happened next would be a nightmare for any family—the dose was prescribed, and “the kid ended up, for three days, in this extreme, hallucinatory, very scary situation,” Woodhouse says. “He was seeing things floating in front of his eyes. He was sitting there with an afghan around him, picking it apart, because there was just nothing that was real for him.”

When the case came to Woodhouse, then a senior assistant attorney general for Wyoming, she stepped in to make sure the dentist couldn’t harm anyone else. The case, in which she repped the board of dental examiners that revoked the dentist’s license, ended up being one of the most memorable from her time in the public sector. “It was a horrible, horrible matter, and was one of those cases that we had to go to hearing on,” she says.

Woodhouse began in the criminal division of the attorney general’s office in 1978, then became a senior assistant attorney general before switching offices to become an assistant U.S. attorney in 1990. “I really liked being able to help people with relatively small problems,” she says of her time with the state office. “They’re big problems to them. They couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, and yet they have an advocate at the attorney general’s office.”

In 1995, then-state Attorney General William U. Hill asked Woodhouse to be his chief deputy attorney general. “That is one of those [positions] where, every day, 30,000 things you didn’t expect are coming at you, and it’s just cut-and-run,” she says. “Whatever the closest tree is, try to get that one taken care of before it falls on you.”

It was during this time she was handed a particularly meaningful project: the Silent Witness program. “They asked Wyoming to build an exhibit representing the women who had died as a result of domestic violence in Wyoming, which was going to travel to Washington,” Woodhouse says. “So my boss, the attorney general, just came to me with this letter and said, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. Make this happen.’”

That simple directive turned into a major undertaking, involving identifying and verifying the women, collecting information from their families and law enforcement, building representations for each victim and creating a book to share their stories, and organizing people to help. That included the builders, who were state prisoners. “[The women] created life-size silhouettes out of plywood and paint, while the men’s prison made a plaque for each one,” Woodhouse says.

The exhibit was first unveiled at the women’s prison, “where many of those women were victims of domestic violence. … They were so proud; it was so touching, because they felt a sense of accomplishment and pride, and that they’d done something for their sister victims,” she adds. “It turned out to be one of the most incredible synergistic kinds of things that could happen. And we did go to Washington, where all the other states were [also] represented. It was one of the things I’m most proud of doing.”

When Hill went on to the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1998, Gov. Jim Geringer appointed Woodhouse to be Wyoming’s first female attorney general. She oversaw some major cases, including Wyoming v. Houghton, which questioned whether a state trooper could search a vehicle passenger’s property. 

Woodhouse went back to private practice in 2001, launching her own firm. But there’s still something about the public sector that sticks with her. “I enjoyed it so much. One of my associates just got a job with the attorney general’s office; I just found out about it this week and I was just kind of jealous,” she says with a laugh. 

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