Terry Halpin is getting a handle on the task of maintaining the records of the largest district court in Montana.
Elected to the position of Clerk of District Court for Yellowstone County in 2016, Halpin took over about two weeks ago. Halpin has made some small changes, but said for the moment she wants to play an observatory role.
“I have been really busy,” Halpin said. “I enjoy the challenge. The staff has been quite welcoming.”
In her role, Halpin manages an office of up to 21 people. Currently, she is down one supervisor and one deputy clerk. The supervisor position is open for applications and Halpin will work to fill the position once she has a chance to assess the greatest need of the office.
Within her first term, Halpin could face implementation of a new digital filing system.
“I hope the state will have enough confidence in this office to do that,” she said.
Paperless courts are coming, Chief Yellowstone County District Court Judge Russell Fagg said. As the largest and busiest district court in the state, a paperless court would be a huge benefit, Fagg said.
The Clerk of Court maintains records of adoption, divorce, parenting plans, wills, marriage licenses and both civil and criminal cases in the county. People use the office’s public computers to research everything from genealogy to debt liens.
Maintaining a clear record prevents cases from languishing and helps to make sure the judges, police and attorneys can do their jobs, Halpin said.
“The court system only works as well as we do our jobs,” she said.
The office of clerk of court was previously held by Kristie Boelter, who lost re-election. Boelter had held the position for four years and was one of three clerks to hold the position since 2003.
Fagg noticed a difference in the clerk's office after the departure of Jean Thompson in 2003, who retired after about eight years in the position. With her, the office ran seamlessly, Fagg said. With her departure, judges started noticing the office struggling to keep track of documents.
In the short time since Halpin has taken over, Fagg has noticed a big improvement. He has heard from a deputy clerk who said pulling files is faster and easier now that they don't have to track down loose documents.
Halpin was Fagg's judicial assistant when she decided to run for the clerk of court position.
Both the FBI and the Department of Justice use the office to research criminal records, according to deputy clerk Ted Robey. Robey also handles marriage licenses, issuing about 1,500 licenses in 2016. After same-sex marriage was passed in Montana, Robey said the office issued almost 2,000 licenses. Both parties must be present to get a marriage license.
Deputy Clerk Marilyn Morning Gun-Reed works at the front desk on the criminal case side of the office. Last year, the office began safe-keeping wills and estate titles as well. Working the front desk, Morning Gun-Reed maintains search warrants, bond amounts and processes fine payments.
“We do so much, it’s hard to think of everything,” Morning Gun-Reed said. The deputy clerks need to be able to fill in for one another as well, she said.
Kim Paxinos, a deputy clerk on the civil side of the office, has worked in the office through four administrations. While each new clerk makes adjustments to the office, the basic work of filing stays the same. Paxinos files parenting plans, divorces and adoption cases.
The deputy clerks also maintain minute entries for the judges and track hearing dates.
After Boelter was ousted by county voters, she began studying for her real estate license and was spending less time at the office. A supervisor in the office also quit at about the same time.
Halpin gave credit to Robyn Shierholt, chief deputy clerk, for keeping the office running during the months before she took her position.
“The way she stepped up was tremendous,” Halpin said.