Rizza Palmares O'Connor, a double bear, graduated with a Bachelor in Business Administration in 2007 and a Juris Doctor degree in 2010. Since then, O'Connor has made her mark at home and in public service.
She considers serving others through being a judge, a wife, and a mother as her greatest accomplishment. O'Connor says, “I feel my purpose is to live according to God's will and live a life pleasing to Him. I am thankful that both my public and private roles give me a chance to fulfill that purpose.”
O'Connor served as the Secretary of the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia from June 2015 to May 2016, and is currently serving as Treasurer. She was sworn in as Chief Magistrate Judge in November 2013, recognized as the first Filipino-American judge in Georgia. She was also the youngest Asian American to serve as a judge.
O'Connor planned to enter the medical field, but she says she changed her mind after serving on a jury in a criminal trial. The female prosecutor handling the case earned her respect, and O'Connor fell in love with the law. She never dreamed of becoming a judge but wanted to be a career prosecutor. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” O'Connor said. “I am fortunate to have strong female attorneys in Southeast Georgia to come before me and provide opportunities for other women,” she continues. She credits Chief Superior Court Judge Kathy Palmer of the Middle Judicial Circuit, who appointed her to Magistrate Court, for the opportunity to serve.
Her favorite part of being a Magistrate Judge is the ability to impact the lives in her community. “We are the people's court where the majority of cases are brought by pro-se litigants. Magistrate works well as a part of our society's judicial system because it upholds public order. It gives people a chance to bring their concerns or grievances to a neutral person that will make a decision based on the facts and the law.”
O'Connor recognizes her position of influence also comes with challenges. “I wish I knew that being a boss is hard. The management side of being a judge can be more difficult than the legal side on a lot of days. Decisions can be tough but need to be made for the best interest of the public”, she said. Practicing in a rural county, like Toombs, she often runs into folks who she has ruled against. “It can be awkward to see these people at the grocery store, restaurants, or at social events,” she smiles.
She knows how fortunate she is because she gets to serve and do the job she loves and come home to family. She admits it is a constant battle to juggle a full-time career, her marriage to another lawyer, and motherhood, “but it is not impossible” she said. She credits her ever-supportive husband Daniel, “It is a great dynamic, and a lot of give and take.” O'Connor says, “Daniel and I take turns waking up with Evie, our five-month-old,” but she still finds time to run in the morning, with Judson in tow.
It takes commitment, ambition, and some grit but a woman can be successful in her career and raising a family. O'Connor says, “My family is my priority and my intent is to always be present for them, but working is the best fit for me.” Looking at the bigger picture, she hopes her work as a judge and also with the YLD will show her children the value of hard work and helping others.