Fundraising letter roils low-profile Supreme Court clerk’s race

Posted at 4:50 PM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 19:15:20-04

HELENA — A fundraising letter has spiced up the low-profile race for Montana Supreme Court clerk, as Democrats say the letter suggests Republican Bowen Greenwood would improperly inject partisan politics into the document-filing office.

“I can’t imagine a judge, a justice, a member of the public, a party in a case that would think it a good idea that the clerk of the Supreme Court would engage in partisan activism,” Democratic candidate Rex Renk told MTN News last week.

Renk commented on a fundraising letter the Greenwood campaign sent this summer to potential supporters, authored by former state District Judge Russ Fagg, a Republican who also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate this year.

In the letter, Fagg called Greenwood a “pro-transparency, pro-jobs” candidate and said the clerk of court could encourage groups to get involved in cases that involve public policy issues before the Supreme Court.

Fagg wrote that in a recent Supreme Court case on a ballot measure to impose new regulations on mines, “liberals” were able to file friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the measure, but “conservatives” did not.

“What if the clerk of the Supreme Court went the extra mile to encourage more participation, like filing amicus briefs?” Fagg wrote. “Might there have been a few conservative allies stepping forward to help the mining association?”

Bowen Greenwood

Both Greenwood and Fagg told MTN News they don’t see a problem with encouraging more parties to get involved in important cases before the court, and that the Democratic criticism is off-base.

“When the Supreme Court is at the right stage of proceedings for amicus petitions to be filed, the clerk of the Supreme Court should make sure the public in general knows, and has the opportunity to participate,” Greenwood said. “That’s why I’m running for the job, because I believe in putting information out to all of the public.”

“I stand by the letter,” Fagg said. “I think that encouraging amicus briefs, not only from conservatives, but from liberals, is a terrific idea. … I think any justice would want more information on a case before deciding it.”

Greenwood, Renk and Libertarian Roger Roots are running for the Supreme Court clerk job, which is one of only three contested statewide electoral races this year. It’s an open seat, because longtime Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith, who’s been in office since 1989, is retiring this year.

The little-known office, an elected position since Montana became a state in 1889, files and maintains documents in cases before the high court. It also maintains the court’s website, through which the public can see those documents and court orders.

Renk has been the court’s deputy clerk under Smith for 23 years and said his experience makes him the right pick for the job.

He told MTN News the clerk should be a nonpartisan office, and that he’d run the office in that manner. Justices on the seven-member court run without party affiliation.

“Politics do not belong in the operation of the clerk of the Supreme Court,” he said. “It just has no place in the judicial system.”

Greenwood has worked as a spokesman on Republican candidates’ campaigns over the years and is now communications director for the state Public Service Commission.

He told MTN News that the clerk’s actual work is certainly nonpartisan, but that in an election, “a large number of Montanans” want to vote for someone who shares their political views, and that being a Republican certainly tells voters something about his values.

“At the very least, it provides a little information to the voter, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Greenwood said.

He said as clerk, he wants to give all parties involved a “level playing field” to make their case and file whatever documents they deem necessary – and there’s nothing wrong with that.