June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

In the state whose motto is Live Free or Die, Chuck and Caroline Douglas wrote the book on divorce. Their hefty volume, New Hampshire Practice: Family Law, written by Chuck in 1981 and revised by Caroline a decade later, is the bible for local divorce attorneys. And through the doors of the couple’s erstwhile firm, Douglas & Douglas, with offices in Concord and Manchester, have filed hundreds of unhappily married couples.

But the case that currently tops this high-profile duo’s agenda—as it has ever since they ceased cohabitating in 1996—is the public disintegration of their five-year marriage. They say war isn’t pretty, and Douglas v. Douglas proves the point handsomely.

Chuck, 56, a former one-term Republican congressman, fired the first volley when he filed for divorce on Nov. 26, 1996, citing irreconcilable differences. Caroline, now 51, decided to fight: Among other counter-measures, she hired private detectives to search through Chuck’s home and office trash cans, where she claims to have found cash register receipts for condoms and half a dozen notes penned by Chuck to his secretary. When Chuck at one point asked the court to bar his estranged wife from using his last name, she parried with a pointed, if apparently frivolous, motion asking that he be ordered to use the vaguely vulgar name of Dick M. Douglas, on the grounds that it fit what she called his “tawdry” reputation.

And so it has gone ever since, with three separate lawsuits, some 400 court filings and even a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. New Hampshirites call it the Divorce from Hell, and seem to relish the ironic spectacle of two legal pros struggling in vain to put their own house asunder. “You’ve got two people with no kids in a relatively short-term marriage, both of whom have sufficient earning capacity,” says Portsmouth attorney Patti Blanchette. “What went astray in that case, I don’t know.”

Naturally, there are two sides to this story. Caroline Douglas says her life with Chuck was happy until the evening before Thanksgiving 1996. That’s when Caroline, a divorcee with two grown children, pulled up to the Douglases’ 20-room, ski-lodge-style house overlooking Concord with 23 bags of groceries for the holiday dinner. “I wanted everything to be perfect,” she says. But inside, the house was dark. Caroline noticed that prized pieces of furniture were missing, along with tools, towels and 17 file cabinets used by Chuck, who was also absent. Then she found the note (“I hope this makes you happy”) her husband had written.

Clearly, it did not. According to her account of events (which Chuck disputes), Caroline had stood by her moody husband as he struggled with depression resulting from his frustrated desire to run for governor (he claims he never wanted to), a botched suicide attempt on his part (again, he denies it), plus Chuck’s gloomy talk of leaving New England for a fresh start in New Mexico (equally false, he says). Through it all, Caroline says, she worked 70-hour weeks at their law firm and never drew a paycheck: “I had that biblical belief that marriage is bigger than a job; marriage is everything.”

Chuck, on the other hand, says the relationship was troubled almost from the start. Caroline had problems controlling her anger, he says, for which she began seeing a counselor in late 1991. Chuck claims his firm lost three attorneys, and countless staffers, because of Caroline’s despotic ways. “People were terrorized here,” says Susanna Robinson, 32, an associate who quit the firm in 1996 and was rehired by Chuck after the Douglas split. “I had a revolving door in my office of people crying with any Caroline issue that came up.” Mrs. Douglas insists she began seeing a counselor only at her husband’s urging and counters that all the firings were justified. “I wasn’t running a popularity campaign, but I was trying to be fair,” she says.

She also points out that the contentious couple were once in love—and neither entered the relationship wearing blinders. Caroline George, a native of Akron, had finally recovered from a messy 1982 divorce from a dentist in Hawaii—in which she lost custody of their children, Melisa, now 25, and Gavin Uchida, 22—when she moved to New Hampshire in 1988. Armed with a law degree she had completed the previous year, she found work at a Concord law firm. As for her first encounter with Chuck Douglas at a party in 1989, Caroline sums it up in a word: “Sparks,” she says.

Charles Gwynne Douglas III, a Boston-educated lawyer who had been appointed to the state supreme court in 1977, knew a thing or two about love and marriage himself. He had already weathered two divorces when he ran for Congress as a family-values conservative and was elected in 1988. The following year, however, the breakup of Douglas’s third marriage, to textbook editor Lorenca Rosal, drew sharp criticism from voters. In the next election, Douglas was defeated by architect Dick Swett—the first Democrat to carry the state’s Second Congressional District in 78 years.

But family values are no prerequisite for practicing family law. Back in Concord, Douglas’s practice flourished with the addition of Caroline as a partner in 1991, and the couple became celebrities in GOP circles, hosting fund-raisers and their own cable-TV political chat show. “They worked all the time and they loved what they were doing,” says Caroline’s daughter Melisa. But after tensions at the office eventually invaded their home, Chuck was ready to call it quits. “In retrospect,” Caroline says, “I think we got married because he needed a free secretary.”

As part of the legal jousting that has ensued, the Douglases have bitterly debated the net worth of their former professional partnership, and each has taken out a restraining order. Caroline, who now devotes herself to her own case full-time, insists she can get a fair trial only in a neighboring state because of her husband’s previous job as a New Hampshire judge. And Chuck accuses his wife of prolonging the matter because she is “a publicity hound.”

With no end in sight to the feud, some New Hampshirites are growing impatient. “Servants of the legal profession should be setting an example for their clients…that the law is a process in which they can have confidence,” said a Concord prosecutor to the local newspaper. The only confidence that seems justified in this case, however, is that the contestants may be ready to rumble till death do them part.

Patrick Rogers

Mark Dagostino in Concord

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