Chief Judge for 5th Judicial District retires after 32-year career

Judge Merlin Wheeler shares what he’s learned and what he’s looking forward to
Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler of the 5th Judicial District is set to retire on Friday, September 2.
Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler of the 5th Judicial District is set to retire on Friday, September 2.(WIBW)
Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 5:08 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A well known judge is hanging up his robe after this week. Chief Judge for the 5th Judicial District Merlin Wheeler will officially retire Friday, September 2. The 5th District covers both Lyon and Chase counties. Judge Wheeler says that during his 32-year role as a judge he has seen it all from mundane business to major crimes.

“I’ve had cases where the sole issue was who got the custody of a cat all the way up to murder cases,” said Wheeler. “There’s been far more of those than I’d like to recount.”

When asked about which cases are most memorable to him he said there were two instances. The first was in 1992 where his ruling would determine which party would hold the majority in the Kansas state House of Representatives. The second was an explosion in an apartment in 2001.

“One of the big cases we had was when we had a very unfortunate explosion with a couple deaths down in what we call the East Gate Plaza area here,” said Wheeler. “That resulted in some trials. That case involved over 10,000 photographs and I don’t know how many pages of reports.”

Wheeler first started as an attorney for the City of Emporia and became a judge in 1990 and the chief judge in 1997. He quickly came to a substantial realization about his new task.

“It took me probably a good 3 to 4 weeks of coming to grasp at the realization that suddenly I’m going to be making decisions that really affect the lives of people for the rest of their life,” said Wheeler. “I think that that’s probably the most challenging thing that any judge will face is that realization.”

The biggest change Wheeler said he’s seen over his more than 30-year career as a judge is changes not only in laws, but in how cases are presented and how large a role technology plays in the courtroom.

“Attorneys have become much more sophisticated in their presentations, the research tools are better,” said Wheeler. “They make it much, much more of a task for a judge than they used to make because there is certainly so much more that they have to take a look into to prepare for a case and consequently we have to as well.”

After retirement Judge Wheeler says that most of all he’ll miss the constant engagement in current events. He is most looking forward to having more time for his favorite hobbies such as hunting and enjoying the outdoors. Wheeler says he and his wife are both avid travelers and is eager to spend time with family.