Public office makes governor's bid for privacy in divorce case indefensible

Suddenly we're all starched collars and solemn expressions in the Nevada press. All at once we don't know what to do with our hands, and we keep staring at our shoes.

Uh, gee, how do you report on a divorce case involving the governor and first lady?

This state has a wide-open journalism tradition, but you would barely recognize it from our painfully respectful and downright Victorian approach to the pending divorce of Jim and Dawn Gibbons. Granted, it's only the first round of what could develop into an ugly catfight in Carson City.

But at this rate, the public might never learn the facts behind the first couple's failed marriage.

Why is it our business?

Gov. Gibbons has held himself out as a man deserving of our trust and respect and the keys to the state's top office. And Dawn Gibbons has stepped up to embrace the state's multimillion-dollar anti-methamphetamine strategy. These people courted us, not the other way around.

No one should expect them to be perfect. This is the same Jim Gibbons who prior to his election found his name in tawdry headlines linked to an FBI corruption investigation and accused of taking liberties with a local cocktail waitress. Nevadans clearly are a forgiving lot.

But Jim Gibbons has pursued Nevadans since 1989 when he was elected to the Assembly.

Many Nevadans have believed in him and trusted him, enough to easily re-elect him to Congress as well as elect him governor.

The decision to divorce in the middle of his first term was the governor's ill-advised and very public decision. The idea that he has sought to have the fallout from his public decision sealed from public view ought to generate jeers throughout the press.

Of course, that's not the way the governor's allies see it.

"I know they are working toward a resolution, and he asks that the family's personal privacy be respected," Gibbons spokesman Jim Denton said recently. "The governor continues to do the state's business as usual."

Following the initial divorce filing, the governor's attorney Gary Silverman said in a statement, "The governor has on repeated occasions asked for privacy in this matter for his family."

Trouble is, at least one member of his family disagrees. That would be Dawn Gibbons.

"It is my client's position and my position that the public is entitled to know the affairs of, and the circumstances of, the public and private lives of the governor and the first lady, particularly as it relates to the filings by the respective parties," Dawn Gibbons' attorney Cal Dunlap said Tuesday.

Dunlap, the tough former Washoe County district attorney, is well aware vicious rumors have been circulating about his client. Although he declined to address them, Dunlap made it clear that he will be extremely aggressive in protecting his client's reputation.

"We are considering whether or not to challenge the sealing of the initial proceedings and filings," Dunlap said.

The press ought to be preparing a similar legal challenge.

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to have the court documents do the talking. The filings should be made public and kept public.

So far, no good.

Nevada law allows even one party in a divorce case to easily have the proceedings sealed from public view. Following the law, Carson City District Judge Bill Maddox on Monday signed an order sealing most of the records in the case and indicated a trial would also be private.

It's not a private matter. At least it shouldn't be.

These are public figures. One was elected to the state's highest office. The other has sought the public spotlight and championed anti-drug causes that have been splashed throughout the media.

Why would the governor seek to seal a case not even his estranged wife wants sealed?

"I think people can draw their own conclusions," Dunlap said. "I would hope just as a citizen that all of our public officials would be open and transparent about who they are and what they are and not have spin doctors and handlers putting out false information and creating false impressions."

This story threatens to turn ugly. But it's an important story in a state that's paranoid about keeping up appearances.

If Gov. Gibbons wanted to keep his divorce private, he should have resigned from public office.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.