This November, voters will elect a new clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, as veteran Clerk of Court Ed Smith is retiring. On the ballot for the position will be Democrat Rex Renk, deputy clerk of court for the last 23 years, Bowen Greenwood, former executive director of the Montana Republican Party and communications director of the Family Foundation, and Roger Roots.
I spent 16 years as a justice on the Montana Supreme Court before retiring in 2016. I know firsthand how smoothly and evenhandedly the clerk’s office functioned during my tenure and that of Renk. If Greenwood gets his wish, the clerk’s office will become a political pawn working not for the courts and the public at large but for the partisan interests of his party. We must not let this happen.
Because the office of the clerk is part of the nonpartisan Judicial Branch, it has never operated in a partisan or political fashion. The clerk’s statutory duties, set forth in Section 3-2-402, MCA, include the compiling and management of the records of 750 new cases per year, issuing writs, keeping track of the roll of Montana attorneys, and making copies of briefs and court orders as directed. In addition, under the expert guidance of Renk, the clerk’s office has recently implemented a complex statewide electronic filing system for the filing of court briefs and motions. None of these statutory duties is remotely partisan.
Greenwood wants to change the priorities of the clerk’s office. Retired judge Russ Fagg wrote in a fundraising letter for Greenwood that the clerk should take “a passionate forward-thinking approach to public information,” and ensure that conservative allies are alerted to the opportunity to file an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in cases important to conservatives. Greenwood would have the clerk spend taxpayer dollars reading briefs — which is not the clerk’s job — and notifying fellow conservatives of possible advocacy opportunities.
Further, in an NPR interview this week with Brian Kahn on Homeground, Greenwood indicated that while he can’t influence the court “when it legislates from the bench,” he does expect the court will want to ask him about pending matters and that he intends to give the court good counsel. It is painfully evident that Greenwood has no understanding of how the Clerk of Court’s Office is intended to function. It is also evident that he and Fagg want to change the office from a public service to a political fiefdom.
To be clear, it is not the province of a political party to dictate how the Clerk of Court’s Office should be operated. By law, the Clerk must “perform the duties prescribed by law and “other duties as may be required by … the rules and practice of the supreme court.” Section 3-2-402(1)(g), MCA. Thus, it is the court that sets the policies and direction of the clerk’s office; it is not the clerk or his political affiliates.
The clerk ensures the security and accuracy of court records and protects the right of all members of the public to access court records in person or on-line. Under the longtime guidance of Ed Smith and Rex Renk, the men and women of this office have maintained faith in the judicial system by treating every member of the public and every party before the court impartially and with equal attention and fairness.
It is vitally important that the clerk’s office remain efficient, impartial, and dispassionate, and open to all without partisan bias or favor. For these reasons, I urge voters to choose proven experience and integrity over partisan exploitation. Please vote for Rex Renk.