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Montana Supreme Court clerk race stirs controversy

Posted at 1:11 PM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 14:22:37-04

HELENA – One statewide electoral contest that hasn’t had much attention is the race for clerk of the state Supreme Court, but the low-profile race has generated a bit of controversy.

The race for Supreme Court Clerk, which is one of only three contested statewide races in Montana this year, features Democrat Rex Renk, Republican Bowen Greenwood and Libertarian Roger Roots.

Greenwood sent out a fundraising letter from former District Judge Russ Fagg of Billings last month that prompted some criticism from Democrats.

Fagg said in the letter that cases before the Montana Supreme Court involving a public-policy issue that the clerk could help encourage additional parties to file their own briefs, and argue their side – including what he called “conservative allies.”

Renk, who’s been deputy clerk of the court for 23 years, told MTN News that’s not what the clerk is supposed to do.

“I can’t imagine a judge, a justice, a member of the public, a party on a case, that would think it’s a good idea that the clerk of the Supreme Court would engage in partisan activism,” Renk said

Greenwood, who works currently as spokesman for the Montana Public Service Commission says Democrats are making a mountain out of a molehill.

He says all Fagg is suggesting –- and what he, as clerk, wants to do — is to ensure maximum public participation before the Supreme Court, on cases of high public interest.

“When the Supreme Court is at the right stage in proceeding for amicus petitions to be filed, the Clerk of the Supreme Court absolutely should make sure the public, in general, knows and has the opportunity to participate,” Greenwood said.

Fagg told MTN News that he stands by his letter and that he was simply arguing that all sides — liberal and conservative — should be notified about high-profile cases where they could file friend-of-the-court briefs.

Renk says such activity could be seen as partisan and that the clerk — and the court — must maintain a strict policy of impartiality, “politics do not belong in the operation of the clerk of the Supreme Court.”

But Greenwood doesn’t believe it’s partisan to make sure all sides are heard, in a major public-policy case, “I believe in a level playing field — that if we put out information more broadly, more often, to more people, that our ideas are good ideas, and they’ll win.”

-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News.