The clerk of the Montana Supreme Court will be elected on Nov. 6. It’s the statewide election most voters don’t even know will be on the ballot.
Fortunately, a highly qualified candidate who has been serving the public well in this office for 23 years as a deputy clerk is running for the elected job. Rex Renk seeks to succeed Ed Smith, who has been the Supreme Court clerk for nearly 30 years.
The clerk’s job is to file, protect and provide public access to the Supreme Court's records. Renk recently described the job this way: “The independent clerk is beholden to the public — not the court or the judges — acting as a check and balance within the judicial branch by establishing and protecting the public record upon which judges and justices rule.”
“Also, as a public servant I truly believe it is important to foster, through assistance and service, our citizens’ faith and trust in our courts, even if the outcome does not go their way. For me, promoting trust in our institutions is no small matter for our state and for our society.”
Last year, the Montana Supreme Court had 743 new cases filed, including 228 cases involving litigants representing themselves without an attorney. Smith, Renk and the five other clerks in the office (two full time, three part time) answer questions from lawyers and from people who have no attorney. The clerks need to know the court rules and processes to provide that information. The clerks need to know what they cannot say — they cannot provide legal advice; they cannot disclose legally confidential information.
Montanans who want to read state District Court documents have to go to the county courthouse. Electronic filing still isn’t widely available at the District Court level. But all opinions and filings of the Montana Supreme Court are accessible online.
The next step, Renk told The Gazette editorial board, is to develop direct system access for self-represented litigants to file what attorneys now can file electronically. Digital access increases transparency for courts, a fact that inspires Renk as the IT point person opening up the clerk’s office to the people of Montana. His experience with e-filing and the Supreme Court’s model can provide guidance to District Court clerks as they transition to digital records over the next year.
The Supreme Court clerk’s office hasn’t been and shouldn’t be partisan. But the clerk is elected on a partisan basis. Renk is running as the Democratic nominee. The Republican nominee is Bowen Greenwood, the Public Service Commission spokesman, who previously worked in communications for the Montana Family Foundation and formerly was state GOP executive director.
Greenwood is a likeable person, but he has no court system or clerk experience. We are concerned that Greenwood’s campaign fundraising efforts have strongly implied there would be advantages for partisan special interests if he is elected clerk of the Supreme Court.
After growing up in Boise, Idaho, the youngest of 14 children, Renk earned a master of history degree from Carroll College in Helena and began his career in the Supreme Court Clerk Office.
Renk is eloquent and humble in describing the privilege of serving as court clerk. We highly recommend Rex Renk as an excellent candidate for this important justice system job.