Election 2018: Montana Supreme Court clerk’s race could affect access to legal system

Democrat Rex Renk, center, speaks to a Missoula audience last month as Republican Bowen Greenwood, far left, and Libertarian Roger Roots look on. (Annisa Keith/Community News Service)

(Community News Service) While the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh could influence the outcome of several nationally significant midterm elections, in Montana the only contested race involving the state’s high court is for the job of clerk.

The choices couldn’t offer a wider contrast.

Three candidates are running for the seat. Rex Renk is a Democrat who has worked as the deputy clerk for more than 20 years and now seeks the top job. Bowen Greenwood is a former executive director of the Montana GOP and Roger Roots is an outspoken Libertarian activist.

They are battling over a position that handles the paperwork associated with state Supreme Court cases. They do not influence the decisions made by the court. The role of clerk is to keep track of the records and schedule of the court. All of which makes it not your typical elected office, but Renk said voting for clerk is about establishing clear authority.

“We don’t work for the court, we are beholden to the people,” he said.

Renk explained the clerk of the court is there to make interacting with the court system easier and more intuitive for everyone.

His vision is for a more digital clerk’s office. He pointed to the work he has done to help implement a new electronic filing system that is intended to assist citizens who represent themselves in court to file their own paperwork. This not only makes court cases cheaper and more convenient for individuals, but it simplifies paperwork for both citizens and the state.

Roger Roots shares Renk’s attitudes for a less costly, more accessible clerk’s office, but brings a clear Libertarian approach to the office, saying, “Every decision I make will be anti-government in order to equalize the imbalance of power in this [judicial] branch when it comes to the state over its citizens.”

Republican Bowen Greenwood also said he would work for a reduction in court fees and paperwork. Despite his past work at the Montana Republican Party, Greenwood stressed he saw the clerk’s job as not a particularly partisan office, saying at one public forum, “There is no Republican or Democratic way of filing paperwork … reducing the paperwork burden will assist access to justice.”

Still, Renk and others questioned a fundraising letter Greenwood sent out this summer that said Greenwood would help encourage more filings by conservative groups in cases before the court, known as amicus briefs. The letter, written by failed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and former judge Russ Fagg, read, “What if the Clerk of Supreme Court went the extra mile to encourage more citizen participation, like filing amicus briefs? Might there have been a few conservative allies stepping forward to help the mining association?”

Critics said the letter amounted to politicizing the office. Greenwood has stood by the letter, saying helped explain his goals for the office.

The clerk serves a six-year term and the position pays $103,690 a year.

Two Supreme Court justice races will also be on the ballot. Incumbents Beth Baker and Ingrid Gustafson are up for re-election, although both are running unopposed.

This story was produced by the Community News Service, a service of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Please contact student reporter anissa.keith@umontana.edu if you have questions.