chatWITH… Rizza O’Connor
A chatWITH… Rizza O’Connor
“I feel that I am the epitome of what the American Dream is,” Rizza Palmares O’Connor remarked in her new office at the Mackey Bryant & Daniel O’Connor Law Firm. The first-generation Filipino-American shared the tale of her origin, which began many years ago overseas.
“My family came here from the Philippines. My mom became a nurse for the sole reason of having the opportunity to come to America,” O’Connor enlightened. “Still to this day, a lot of females go into nursing in the Philippines to have that opportunity to come to America and work. She did, and she had many places that offered her employment, from Michigan to New York, and of all places in the entire United States, she chose Statesboro, Georgia.” The judge’s mother, Evelyn Palmares, worked in Statesboro for a few years before meeting and marrying her father, Orly Palmares. After marriage, the couple moved to Savannah where O’Connor’s mother served as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where O’Connor was eventually born.
Growing up, O’Connor was involved in a culture which focused on the medical field for work. “I was surrounded by this Filipino community in Savannah, and everyone was a nurse,” she explained. “So, for years growing up, I truly believed I would be a doctor. My dad also worked at the hospital, so that was basically all I knew.”
Yet, O’Connor’s career aspirations turned away from the medical field when she was chosen to sit on the jury for an aggravated assault case right after graduating from high school. “I was accepted into Mercer University and had already declared for the pre-med track, but the summer after my high school graduation I got a jury summons for Chatham County Superior Court,” she reminisced. “There were three of us — myself, someone I had graduated with, and someone I had served with in a youth leadership group — and we all got put on a jury! Having been a prosecutor now, the thought of putting three 18-year-olds on an aggravated assault jury was bold.”
She credits the dynamic work of Prosecutor Isabel Pauley for her newfound infatuation with the legal system after the trial. “I was just attracted to the way she held herself, how smart she was, and how she could respond to the judge’s questions,” she said. “I wanted to be just like her.”
From that trial onward, O’Connor wanted nothing more than to be a lawyer, and she worked to make that dream a reality. She attended Mercer University for her undergraduate degree and continued after to study at Mercer’s Law School.
“My parents never wanted me to fit a particular box, so they were excited for this new career ambition,” she noted. “We did not know a single lawyer, so we never had anything to base it on.” This opportunity was one which her family had moved to America in search of. “I saw my parents work hard and come here with no friends or family,” she emphasized. “My mother came from a family with ten siblings, my dad came from a family of six — so, leaving all of that behind to forge a new life, from where we started to where we are is incredible. Like, this is exactly the life my mother hoped her children would have when she came here.”
That search for opportunities soon became far more prosperous than the family could have imagined. Mercer University led the attorney on the path to her future. She graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 2007 and with a Juris Doctor degree in law in 2010. Throughout her time at Mercer, she continued to gain more experiences, including studying abroad for a year at Oxford University in England.
Not only was Mercer University the place where O’Connor gained her foundation of legal knowledge, but it also was the place which she started the foundation of her family, as she met her husband Daniel in the library during law school. “I am two years older than Daniel, so the first time I spoke to him in the library, I was the president of the Student Bar Association at the school, and he was a freshman law student,” O’Connor explained with a laugh. “I’m glad I spoke to him that day, because look where we are now!” Since graduation from Mercer, O’Connor has thrived within the legal systems throughout Georgia. She first worked as a personal injury attorney in Atlanta, but soon found the hustle and bustle of the city and atmosphere of that genre of law not an ideal lifestyle for her. “Just Atlanta, and also that type of law just was not the fit for me, so I moved back home to Chatham County,” she clarified. Once back in Chatham County, she volunteered at the Chatham County District Attorney’s office. “I was working with the original prosecutor who inspired me to become a lawyer,” she recalled. “Eventually, I was given a job there in the state court, and I loved prosecution. It is what I wanted to do my whole life. I wanted to move to a small town, get my footing in, and do what I loved.”
— Rizza OcConnor
“I walked in each day and prayed that I made the right decision. Every day, I just tried to resolve things so that conflict was resolved but also that it was in the best interest of each party.” continued from page
She had spent time in the Vidalia area with Daniel’s family, and soon found there was an opening in the District Attorney’s Office, in which she was soon hired to work. She served as a prosecutor in the Toombs and Emanuel County courts before being appointed to the Chief Magistrate Judge position in November 2013 by Chief Superior Court Judge Kathy Palmer and Superior Court Judge Robert Reeves. “I actually don’t think Daniel had plans to come back to the area where he grew up,” she commented. “I loved the area and I wanted to be here, so he followed. It has definitely been a wonderful decision because I cannot imagine anywhere better to raise our kids.” O’Connor has thrived in her life as Chief Magistrate Judge in Toombs County, and said she has enjoyed her time working with the public. “We are the people’s court. “We are face-to-face with people every day helping steer them in the right direction,” she emphasized. “Doing this for eight years, every single day, was different. You never knew what to expect. I was on the front lines with law enforcement, signing arrest warrants and search warrants as things were going on. On the other hand, I saw a lot of sad things and conflict where people could not get along. No one is ever filing anything because they can resolve the issue themselves.” The job was difficult, but it had many special moments that O’Connor will not soon forget. “I think the most satisfying part of being Chief Magistrate Judge has been that I saw things from the treetops. I took each case and each situation and evaluated what I thought was within the law, but also in the best interest within the parties,” she commented. “I do not know if the parties always saw that, but I walked in each day and prayed that I made the right decision. Every day, I just tried to resolve things so that conflict was resolved but also that it was in the best interest of each party.”
“I think my favorite day — because it does not happen very often — was when I had two people in conflict, but they ended up hugging at the end of the hearing,” she said. “It happened twice back-to-back with two different cases. I have seen other cases where people in the community give grace that others may not deserve. Moments like that are why I do what I do.”
Not only does the judge succeed at performing her job, she excels at it. She is a past secretary and president of the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar, recipient of the acclaimed Young Alumnus Award from Mercer University, and was named a Rising Star in the Daily Report.
The Filipino-American also continues to break barriers for Asian Americans, as she is recognized as both the first Filipino-American judge in Georgia, as well as the youngest Asian American to serve as a judge. She has also won several awards, such as the Best Under 40 Award from the National Asian Pacific Bar Association and the 25 Most Influential Asians in Georgia Award from the Georgia Asian Times. O’Connor believes it is her passion for helping and serving others that guides her in her career, especially now as she begins a new chapter at her husband’s law firm. “I have had people investing in me throughout my youth, whether it was teachers, administrators, or people in the community, so that has become a passion for me,” she said. “I’m so thankful for what I have been given because of the support along the way here in America, and I just really want to do the same for others. I truly have a heart for mentoring young people, and helping people in general.”