Judge Whipple, Chief Judge Gaitan and Judge Fenner
From Left: Judge Whipple, Chief Judge Gaitan and Judge Fenner

Thirty Years of Judicial Service

In 2010, three of the Western District’s judges will each celebrate over 30 years of public service. Judge Dean Whipple hits 36 years, with 13 years on the state bench and 23 as a federal district judge. Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. combines 13 years of service in circuit court and the Missouri Court of Appeals with 19 years on the federal bench. And Judge Gary A. Fenner served 16 years as a state circuit and appellate judge before moving to the federal court for the next 14 years. In honor of these achievements, the Federal Law Clerk’s Society and the Federal Practice Committee are hosting a reception on Oct. 19. The event will also welcome the incoming law clerks to the district. All Western District attorneys are invited to attend and should contact Cheryl LaBrecque at cheryl_labrecque@mow.uscourts.gov if your invitation has been misplaced.


Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr.
Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr.

The journey began with a law degree from UMKC in 1974, where Gaitan was a member of the Law Review. He served as counsel for the Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. until his appointment to the state trial bench for the 16th Judicial Circuit in Kansas City, Mo., in 1980. He served on the bench as a trial judge until 1986, when he was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District. It may not be well known, but Judge Gaitan and Judge Fenner served as appellate judges at the same time for the Missouri Court of Appeals. Gaitan served as an appellate judge until 1991.

In 1991, Gaitan was appointed by President George Herbert Walker Bush to become a U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Missouri. He became chief judge in 2007.

From 1997 to 2003, Gaitan was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve as a member of the Federal-State Jurisdiction Committee of the Judicial Conference. He currently serves as a UMKC trustee, a university where he has served as an adjunct professor at the School of Law. He also is an advisory board member to the Kansas City Crime Commission’s “Second Chance” Foundation. Some of the awards he has received include the UMKC Alumnus of the Year and the 2009 Pittsburg State University Meritorious Achievement Award.

Gaitan has also served on several non-profit boards, including 25 years of service as a St. Luke’s Hospital board member. He has received numerous accolades from local organizations, such as the Difference Maker Award given by the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Centurion Leadership Award.


Gaitan has touched many lives through the mentoring of law clerks. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lajuana Counts clerked for Gaitan at the Missouri Court of Appeals from 1988 until 1989. Counts feels “fortunate to have clerked for a judge who actively engaged me in vigorous discussions about each opinion he authored. Our dialogues helped prepare me to become a better prosecutor and appellate attorney.”

She continued: “What makes him such an exceptional judge is the fact that he has served on both the trial and appellate court levels. He understands the rigors of the entire spectrum of the judicial system―he has experienced, firsthand, having his rulings scrutinized by the appellate court, as well as knowing what it is to scrutinize another judge’s ruling! He’s taken his collective experience on each judicial level to become the great leader he is today as the chief judge.”

Charlie Harris, an attorney with Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris LLC, also served as one of Gaitan’s law clerks. “My law clerk time with Judge Gaitan is the most cherished time of my entire life. It was a tremendous opportunity to grow as a lawyer and a person. Our relationship has developed over the years from judge/clerk to mentor/mentee to friend. I consider Judge Gaitan to be one of the brightest individuals I have ever met and one of my closest friends.”

Judge Whipple
Judge Dean Whipple

On Oct. 19, 2010, The Honorable Dean Whipple will also be honored for over 30 years of service as a state and federal judge.

Whipple began his career of public service as Laclede County prosecuting attorney in 1967. The position was “part time” with an annual salary of $6,056. It turned out to be more like a full-time position, and he spent most of his time prosecuting cases. He had time for only a small private practice, doing some domestic and real estate work.

In 1974, Whipple ascended to the state bench as circuit judge for Missouri’s 26th Judicial Circuit. He was re-elected in 1980 and 1986. He traveled five counties to hear cases in his circuit, the farthest courthouse being in California, Mo., 90 miles from his residence in Lebanon.

In May 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Whipple to serve as a U.S. District Court judge. At the time, President Reagan was acting on the recommendations of Senators Jack Danforth and Christopher “Kit” Bond. Judge Whipple was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 9, 1987, and entered duty on Dec. 29, 1987, making him the 25th U.S. District Court judge to be appointed for the Western District. Jack Danforth later commented that of all the men and women he had recommended to serve on the federal bench, none enjoyed more heartfelt support from friends and associates than Dean Whipple.

Whipple served as chief judge for WDMO from January 2000 through January 2007, at which time he took senior status. Senior status has not slowed him down—to this day, he continues to maintain a full caseload.

Whipple’s record on the federal bench speaks for itself, as he has presided over countless criminal and civil cases. In G.L. v. Stangler, Whipple monitored efforts to correct deficiencies in training and licensing of foster homes and other aspects of the handling of foster children in Jackson County. Upon his assignment to the case of Hall v. Jackson County Department of Corrections, Whipple oversaw Jackson County’s efforts to reduce overcrowding within the Jackson County jail.


Another noteworthy matter from Whipple’s caseload is Jenkins, et al. v. Kansas City School District, et al., commonly known as the Kansas City school desegregation case. Whipple was assigned the 1977 case in 2000, and issues continue to arise related to the enforcement of the terms of the 2001 consent judgment. He also continues to oversee the operations of the Housing Authority of Kansas City through the case of Tinsley, et al. v. HUD, et al. and has presided over the Tinsley case since its filing in 1989.

During Whipple’s time on the federal bench, 30 different law clerks have rotated through his chambers. Whipple has extended the education of his law clerks in an informal and unassuming way, teaching by example as they watch him perform his judicial duties.

Barrett Vahle is an attorney with Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP and served as one of Whipple’s law clerks from August 2005 to January 2007. “The great thing about working for him is that he likes lawyers, he likes juries, and he likes trying cases,” Vahle states. “Judge Whipple enjoys his job, and that trickles down to everyone around him. That’s why it’s such a good experience to work for him.”

One change Whipple has seen since he started practicing law in Laclede County is a decline in the civility among attorneys. He attributes part of this to the fact that in rural areas, members of the legal community work with the same lawyers day after day. In a more urban setting such as Kansas City, it may be years before two lawyers will encounter each other again. If there’s just one piece of advice that he could offer to attorneys, it’s to be a person of your word: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

The most notable change Whipple has seen in federal court since his arrival has been the migration to electronic case filing. He sees this as a tremendous boon not only to the court, but also to the bar. With electronic filing and the evolution of other court processes, the judge has also seen an improvement in court staff professionalism and efficiency.

Whipple states that he did not go to college to go to law school. He also did not go to law school with the idea that he would ever be a judge. He points out though that he feels very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get into a profession that he enjoys so much. Whipple is known to be a Missourian to the core, and he has never forgotten his Laclede County roots. This forms a large part of his character, and his colleagues on the bench refer to him as a hard worker who is always willing to help out another judge who needs assistance.

Judge Gary A. Fenner
Judge Gary A. Fenner

After receiving a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1970, Judge Gary A. Fenner received a J.D. from the UMKC School of Law in 1973. He served as assistant city attorney in St. Joseph, Mo., from 1973 to 1977. He worked part time as a business law instructor for Webster College from 1976 to 1977, and he was in private practice in St. Joseph from 1977 to 1979 with Shoemaker, Summers and Fenner. He was a member of the St. Joseph City Council in 1977 and 1978. From 1979 to 1987, Fenner sat as circuit judge on the 5th Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri and then on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, from 1988 to 1996, serving as chief judge from 1994 to 1996.

Nominated by President William Jefferson Clinton on Dec. 13, 1995, Fenner took the seat on the U.S. District Court for the WDMO that was vacated by Judge Scott Wright, who took senior status. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 10, 1996, and received his commission on July 25, 1996.

The Joseph E. Stevens Aspire to Excellence Award was bestowed upon Fenner in 2008 by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association as recognition for outstanding service in improving the quality and administration of justice in the Kansas City Area.

Fenner is identified as a model of professionalism and judicial decorum, showing dedication and willingness to work with the bar to improve the administration of justice. These qualities have been demonstrated throughout his tenure at all levels, from the circuit court and appellate court to the federal court. Michael Oliver of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield, says: "I have been privileged to appear before Fenner in both state and federal court. Over the years, Judge Fenner's evenhanded firmness has repeatedly reminded me of a government attorney's duty to fairly hold offenders accountable."

Born and raised in St. Joseph, Fenner graduated from Christian Brothers High School and became interested in the legal profession through his brother, Mike Fenner, who is now a law professor at Creighton University School of Law.


Fenner has been active in many local and national organizations over the years. He is currently serving as a member of the Board of Directors of the Federal Judges Association and as a member of the Financial Disclosure Committee of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He served as president of the 8th Circuit District Judge’s Association from 2005 to 2007, and he has been a member of the St. Joseph Bar Association since 1973 and a member of the KCMBA since 1988.

Fenner has presided over innumerable civil and criminal cases in the course of his career. Undoubtedly, the most memorable one to date was a state court divorce case where, after the hearing was concluded, the husband pulled a gun out of his boot in an attempt to shoot the judge. Fortunately, the man was stopped by court officers. That day, his role changed from judge to victim to witness for the prosecution.

It is also significant to note that Judge Fenner has presided in cases involving 14 defendants against whom the government has sought the death penalty—all but one of those cases were at the federal level. Jeff Valenti of the U.S. Attorney’s Office states that "I had the responsibility of trying a three-defendant capital case before Fenner only months after starting with the USAO. That case was quite complex and took a total of five weeks to try. With a total of nine attorneys in the courtroom, two for the government and seven on behalf of the defendants, Fenner was able to manage all the competing voices and move the case to resolution. His professionalism and judicial demeanor impressed me then and continue to impress me now."

Jim Humphrey with Polsinelli Shughart PC and a former law clerk to Fenner writes: “I had the good fortune of spending the first two years of my legal career clerking for Judge Fenner. I saw a man who takes his job seriously and demands that the lawyers appearing in front of him do the same. At the same time, he is a lawyer's judge, and I saw him on a number of occasions take the time to offer compliments, advice and input with no purpose other than to assist lawyers in their practice.”

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