Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News
HELENA, Mont. – Montana has only three contested races for statewide office this year – but one of them is getting scant public attention: Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court.
It’s also a partisan race, with Republican Bowen Greenwood, Democrat Rex Renk and Libertarian Roger Roots competing for the office, which is an open seat for the first time in 30 years.
Renk, a deputy clerk under retiring Democratic Clerk Ed Smith for the past 23 years, says it shouldn’t really be a partisan office, because the work is, and should be, distinctly non-political.
“The role of the clerk of the Supreme Court is one that should keep a focus on serving the public, and keep party politics out of it,” he told MTN in a recent interview.
Greenwood agrees that the work itself – the filing of Supreme Court documents and making them available to the public – is nonpartisan.
But he says being a Republican is part of who he is, and that voters should know that.
“There are a large number of Montanans who want to vote for someone like-minded and it may be for an office like this one, or county treasurer, or something that doesn’t seem very partisan,” he says. “But they still like to know that a person who shares their values is in that office.”
Greenwood works now as public-information officer for the state Public Service Commissioner. His prior jobs include executive director of the state Republican Party, spokesman for various elected Republican officials and communications director for the conservative Montana Family Foundation. He’s also written several novels.
Renk is running on his experience, and says he would continue the clerk’s efforts to make the Supreme Court and its records more accessible to the public. He’s also been endorsed by a half-dozen former Supreme Court justices.
The office, while Renk has worked there, has made Supreme Court documents available via the Internet, and is working to expand electronic filing of documents.
“That’s been a focus of ours, and we think the more and better ways that we can promote that access, the things that the public should see, the better off our whole judiciary will be, and our court system as well,” he says.
The only controversy in the campaign, so far, has been over a fundraising letter sent out on Greenwood’s behalf.
Former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings signed the letter, which suggested that if Greenwood is elected, he could encourage various groups, including conservative groups, to file briefs in high-profile cases on public policy issues.
Renk said the clerk shouldn’t be soliciting political sides to get involved in cases.
Greenwood said he merely wants to make it easier for any group to know about high-profile cases, if they want to get involved – and for the public to know as well.
“You can take a passionate, forward-thinking approach to public information that really informs the citizens,” he told MTN News. “I have a long record of work in the public-information field. … My whole career is about information that belongs to the people of Montana, and making sure it gets to them.”
Roots, who has previously run as a Libertarian for U.S. Senate and secretary of state in Montana, says the clerk is sometimes used to “restrict the rights of the individual” in document filing, and that, if elected, he would “maximize the right of the individual.”