Clerk of Montana Supreme Court candidates make case ahead of primary

Clerk of the Supreme Court
Posted at 6:45 PM, May 22, 2024

HELENA — In addition to electing two members of the Montana Supreme Court, voters will also be choosing a Supreme Court clerk this year. Unlike the justices themselves, the clerk is a partisan position, and Republican and Democratic primary ballots will each feature two candidates.

Clerk of Supreme Court may be one of the least well-known elected offices on Montana ballots this year. Even the current holder of the position admits it largely flies under the radar.

“Not many people know about it or know what we do,” said incumbent Bowen Greenwood, a Republican.

The clerk’s office is responsible for receiving legal filings for Supreme Court cases and ensuring they follow the Court’s rules. They also handle the court’s records and manage the public’s access to them.

Bowen Greenwood
Bowen Greenwood, a Republican, was elected clerk of the Montana Supreme Court in 2018.

Greenwood, a former public information representative for elected officials and executive director of the Montana Republican Party, was elected in 2018. In campaigning for a second six-year term, he says he’s been an ally for conservatives in the job.

“There are plenty of conservative attorneys out there defending our good pro-election integrity laws, our good pro-family laws, who have never appeared before the Montana Supreme Court before,” he said. “I'm able to talk them through, ‘These are the timelines, these are the formats, this is what you need to get done in order to have your case successfully filed.’ I like to think of myself as a guide for folks who have never been here before. I have been here before, and I know how to help.”

Jason Ellsworth
State Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, candidate for clerk of the Montana Supreme Court

Greenwood is facing a challenge in the Republican primary, from Montana Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a business owner from Hamilton, has been highly critical of what he sees as overreach and a lack of transparency from the Supreme Court. He says the clerk is a partisan position for a reason, and that the office could be doing more to inform the public.

“Educating the public on the issues that are in front of the courts and how they're ruling on these issues,” he said. “We recently had at the Legislature four of our election bills that they said were unconstitutional, and I don't think people understand or know what those bills are. The clerk should be out there having those discussions with the public, so that's what's different.”

Both Greenwood and Ellsworth said they have no personal issues with each other, but they believe themselves to be the best choice for Republican primary voters. Greenwood said his experience in the position provided value that shouldn’t be discarded. Ellsworth said he’ll be strongly representing the Republican Party’s values in the clerk’s job.

Erin Farris-Olsen
Erin Farris-Olsen, a Democratic candidate for clerk of the Montana Supreme Court

On the Democratic side, Erin Farris-Olsen, an attorney and consultant from Helena, says she believes the clerk’s race has become too politicized, and that she’d support making the job nonpartisan.

“There are many positions at the state level that are partisan, but that doesn't mean that you only serve one party or the other when you're in the role,” she said. “I've been involved in many initiatives, both statewide and at the community level, where, regardless of my political beliefs, in order to do the job right, I have to check my politics at the door. And so while it may be helpful for some people to know what I value as an individual and that I am a proud Democrat, as the clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, I'm going to protect everybody's rights regardless of their political affiliation.”

Farris-Olsen said she’s interested in the position because she’s spent her career working on access to justice initiatives, like the state’s legal self-help program, and she’s seen the value of making the court system work more efficiently for everyday Montanans.

There’s also a second candidate on the Democratic primary ballot: Jordan Ophus, of Havre. MTN reached out but was not able to get hold of him.

Farris-Olsen said she believed neither she nor Ophus knew the other was filing for the position, and that she would support him if he won the primary and hoped he would do the same.

In addition, Libertarian candidate Roger Roots also filed for the position. Libertarian statewide candidates are not appearing on the primary ballot because they’re all running unopposed, but they will move on to the general election.