Jon S. Wheeler, clerk of the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, will retire this October, the court announced Friday.
Wheeler, 73, began as the court’s clerk in December 1990, the third person to hold the position. The court was one of the original three state appellate courts created by the Legislature in 1957; until then, the state Supreme Court handled all appeals.
The job is daunting: The 1st DCA is “one of the largest appellate courts in the country both in terms of number of judges (15) and number of cases filed annually (6,011 in 2014-15),” and its “geographical jurisdiction (32 counties in north Florida) is the largest in the state,” its website says.
“I’ll be trying to spend some time with my wife (of 51 years, MaryLynn,) after spending all my time in my profession,” said Wheeler, a licensed attorney, in a phone interview. “I need to give back to her.”
He also plans to take her on a European river tour of the Danube and Rhine, he said, and visit his three children—a senior Air Force officer, a plastic surgeon and a physical therapist—and his seven grandchildren.
Wheeler said his most striking memory from his days at the court was the controversy over its current headquarters in south Tallahassee, nicknamed the “Taj Mahal.” The court was formerly housed in a building downtown that is now part of Florida State’s law school.
Now-retired Tampa Bay Times reporter Lucy Morgan broke the story of the design and funding of the $48 million home for the court that became the poster building for pre-recession excess.
It was described as “a monument to profligate spending, with no taxpayer dollar spared, a courthouse outfitted with 20 miles of African mahogany (and) etched glass.” Other stories noted an abundance of granite countertops and large, flat-screen television screens.
Wheeler doesn’t apologize for the structure, spearheaded by then-Chief Judge Paul Hawkes, who later resigned from the bench.
“I’ll defend it to the end,” Wheeler said. “It was on budget and it’s not that elaborate. And it’ll be around for 80 years.”
Over the years, he led the court’s transition from paper to electronic files, and served on several blue-ribbon panels, including ones on court record confidentiality and long range planning.
Wheeler graduated from college at FSU, where he was in ROTC, then went on to become one of the first graduates of the university’s College of Law in 1968, according to an online bio.
Wheeler left Tallahassee for the Air Force, serving more than 21 years as a judge advocate, the service’s legal branch. He rose to colonel, becoming an advisor to two separate chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“While in the Pentagon, (Wheeler) noticed an ad in The Florida Bar News for the Clerk of Court at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee,” a press release said. “He shared this with his wife, a fellow FSU graduate and classmate, and they set their sights on returning to Tallahassee.” He got the job.
Wheeler also became an accidental expert on how to handle high-profile cases after the 2000 presidential challenge that wound its way through Tallahassee’s courts. He and fellow clerks eventually put together a 4-hour presentation for other appellate courts around the country.
With some exaggeration, he said it was “about what to do when you come to work and there are 81 satellite trucks parked outside your office.”
A ceremony to honor Wheeler’s decades of service will be held later in the year.