December 01st, 2023

Donna Odneal tracks the proceedings of a case in Seward County District Court. After working 21 years in Seward County, Odneal is now the head court clerk in neighboring Haskell County. L&T photo/Robert Pierce

• Leader & Times

For many people, jury trials are simply a necessary part of life, but not something that they enjoy doing.
For Donna Odneal, they are a huge part of her day and something she looks forward to.
“I’m really going to miss doing jury trials,” she said.
After working a temp job in the Seward County Appraiser’s office, Odneal moved down the hall of the courthouse to the District Court office working as a deputy court clerk, a job she started in September 1997.
She left that job June 1 and went to work just three days later as head court clerk in neighboring Haskell County, where she said jury trials are not as much of the workload.
“Haskell County just doesn’t get that many,” she said.
Odneal said she will miss jury trials the most about her former job.
“I just love doing those. I really do. I enjoy the people,” she said.
Odneal was hired by then District Court Clerk Janice Grant, and the job she just recently quit was her first full-time job. With 20 plus years experience, she has worked up the rankings through the years.
“I went up from a deputy clerk to a 3, which is about as high as you can get, been in that position, deputy clerk 3, for maybe 10, 12 years,” she said.
And now Odneal has reached the position of head court clerk in Haskell County. She said she has wanted to go to that county for some time.
“That position came open,” she said. “It had come open before, and I put in for it. The time wasn’t right I guess. The vehicle I had was not good. I’m going to be driving. I got a new vehicle, and it came open again. I thought okay, now’s the time.”
Haskell County and Seward County are just two of several counties that make up Kansas’ 26th Judicial District, and Odneal said normally, clerks only work the county they are assigned to, but there are times they get to work in the district’s other courthouses.
“There’s times where somebody’s gone or they’re short handed, we can go over and work in any of the counties in the 26th Judicial,” she said. “I’ve done that a couple of times. I’ve worked over in Haskell before. It’s been a while.”
With this in mind, there is a chance visitors to Seward County’s courtrooms could see Odneal again.
“If they’re short handed, yeah, I guess,” she said. “It’s a possibility I suppose. My goal is to eventually come back here.”
That possibility could become bigger in the future, as Odneal is looking to become the head clerk in Seward County. She said the clerk here is nearing their retirement years, and when that happens, Odneal would like to take over that position.
“She’ll retire before I do, so I’m thinking, ‘We’ll go over there to Haskell, get the experience I need and then possibly come back here someday,’” she said.
Odneal said having Haskell County nearby, as well as the low turnover rates in the head court clerk position played a part in her decision.
“A head clerk position just doesn’t come open very often,” she said. “You’re lucky when it comes open. If it had come open in Elkhart or Johnson, I don’t know that I would want that, but 30 miles, I thought, ‘I can do that.’”
Odneal said normally, once a court clerk position is filled, the person likely will stay until retirement.
“I’ve worked here 21 years, and we’ve only had three head clerks since I’ve been here,” she said. “Each one of them has stayed in the position and retired.”
When she started with District Court, Odneal worked domestic cases. She later would work with limited civil cases, and over the years, she has learned how to do much of what a court clerk does.
“Really, I when I got that position of clerk 3, that’s when I really started learning all the other desks and helping out when they needed and of course, the jury stuff,” she said. “I work about every desk. Usually, domestic and stuff like that, not as much as I wish I had. Now, I’m going to have to over there.”
The office Odneal will now be working in is considerably smaller than that in Seward County.
“There’ll just be me and one other, so we’ll do everything,” she said. “Anything that comes through there, we’ll do.”
Odneal said Haskell County’s court work will be a nice change of pace for her.
“I’m looking forward to just starting out in a small county and learning all the administrative stuff,” she said. “Then I’ll feel like I’m more prepared to take on something bigger if that happens someday.”
Odneal said while the head clerk position does not see much in the way of turnover, the other positions in the District Court office do.
“There’s been so many people through here as clerks,” she said.
In addition to jury trials, Odneal said she will also miss the people she has gotten to know as co-workers over the years.
“The group that’s here now, they’re a good bunch of girls,” she said. “The magistrate judges, we’ll miss them. I won’t see them. The only magistrate judge I’ll see will be mine. The ones that come here from Elkhart and Hugoton and Johnson, I won’t see those guys. I’ll really miss those guys, good group of judges. The district judges, I’ll see. They come over there once in a while.”
On her last day of work, Odneal admitted she was a little nervous as she was preparing to start her job in Haskell County.
“Change is hard, but I’m really looking forward to it,” she said. “I really am. I think it’s a good move. I really do. Career wise, I really do.”
The schedule Odneal worked in Seward County, though somewhat hectic, was quite organized.
“Mondays, it’s usually busy,” she said. “We have the criminal stuff, the schedulings and the things like that. You have to get the docket ready for the judge that comes in that does it. We get that ready. We get the first appearances. The ones that are in jail have to be seen. We get them ready. Tuesdays is juvenile day, which is usually a pretty big day. Wednesday’s criminal and limited civil, and Thursday’s traffic.”
Like the rest of the court environment, Odneal said the defendants that came through the system have changed over the years.
“It seems like they find something new all the time,” she said. “We get a lot of that through here.”
As expected with a job like hers, Odneal oftentimes saw the worst in people.
“You definitely don’t see the best of the community through here, but there have been people that have come through here throughout the years that have done whatever they have done,” she said. “They have their fines to pay, so you see them. Sometimes, it’ll take them two or three years to get something paid off. You actually get to know these people, and you know their name when they walk in. You form kind of a relationship with them. I’ve done that quite a bit throughout the years.”
Whether it’s in Seward County, Haskell County or anywhere else, Odneal is a public figure, and at least in Seward County, she said she has become somewhat well known.
“I’m surprised when I’m off work and I’m out somewhere else, how many people recognize you,” she said. “It’s shocking. It really is. And you’re thinking, ‘It has to be the courthouse. It just had to be court I know you from.’”
Likewise, Odneal is somewhat surprised at the level of success she has achieved in her career.
“I never thought when I started, it would go this far,” she said.