Out of the Public Eye

Sealed Records

Many stories from the Reno divorce courts were kept private through deliberate legal means.

Also out of the public eye were certain court cases for which the plaintiff filed a request for a private trial and to have the record of the trial sealed. The names of the parties were public record, but the details, such as agreements, Reno addresses, and testimonies were separated from the public records.

Such secrecy was not always a legally guaranteed option. In the early years of the colony, judges would occasionally seal the records of especially sensitive complaints—for instance, those in which allegations of cruelty were particularly vile. In other cases, complainants were successful in having everything but the names (or simply the initials) of plaintiff and defendant kept private. This led to concerns over potentially fraudulent actions in which a defendant might never learn of a suit filed against him or her or the details of the charges.

The 1931 state legislature (the same session that enabled the six-week divorce) passed a bill to allow attorneys to request that certain aspects of divorce cases remain private. Brought forth by Reno’s legal community, the bill provided that a divorce complaint might be heard behind closed doors, so that while a charge of cruelty might be recorded, no particulars would reach the public. When signed by Governor Balzar that March, the so-called “closed door law” made it mandatory for a judge to provide private divorce hearings and to seal divorce records upon the request of counsel for one of the parties.

Judge George Bartlett took credit for instituting this policy in order to ensure the privacy to which he believed everyone embroiled in domestic difficulties was entitled. Still, the press was dogged in its pursuit of a good divorce story, despite the legal roadblocks in their way.

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Doris Duke

Private hearings and sealed transcripts were common fare in Reno, where many a high-profile divorce-seeker wished to avoid press coverage of all the details of his or her separation. However, those same protections could lead to charges of fraud, by concealing from view the testimony given in support of a divorce suit. In certain cases, the attempt to bring these facts to light led to legal challenges.

Doris Duke was known as “the richest girl in the world” for the wealth she inherited from her multi-millionaire father, James Buchanan Duke. She came to Reno in July of 1943 to divorce her first husband, James H.R. Cromwell. At the request of her attorneys and in keeping with Nevada law, Judge William McKnight ordered the court records sealed from everyone but parties who had appeared during the proceedings. Notably, these parties did not include her husband, who had refused to answer her Reno suit in the first place, instead filing his own divorce suit against her in New Jersey. Duke was issued a default divorce decree that December, on grounds of mental and physical cruelty.

In January of 1944, Cromwell charged that Duke had not only lied to the court about his alleged demands for money, but that she was not a legal resident of Nevada. At the same time, his lawyers charged that the state of Nevada had forfeited its right to the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution by sealing Duke’s testimony so that the New Jersey court could not review the court transcript, which included testimony from over twenty individuals called upon by Duke’s legal team to testify on her behalf.

That May, a New Jersey chancery court found Duke’s Reno divorce null and void. Further legal action ensued, and in a hearing the following November in Reno, Judge William McNight affirmed the validity of her Nevada divorce. Following the announcement, Cromwell stated, “Press accounts of his [Judge McKnight’s] decision are so closely patterned after the smear tactics of the Duke attorneys and advisers as to cast suspicion upon the legitimacy of these star chamber proceedings in Reno where the evidence still remains sealed against me, my attorneys and the courts of New Jersey.” The Reno court refused to budge, and in late 1945, Cromwell received his own decree of divorce from Duke in New Jersey.

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