When Kathleen O’Connor was a child, her father, who was a realtor, would take her to court proceedings to observe the attorneys in action. Afterwards, they’d discuss what they liked about a certain attorney’s presentation and what about another’s made it less compelling.
It was in those moments she developed a love for the profession of law. When her father died unexpectedly at the age of 55, she made a vow to him that she would continue on with their mutual dream and become an attorney in his honor.
She followed through on that promise at a time when there were few female role models to look up to in the profession. She would go on to become Yuba County’s first female judge, and after 18 years in the position, she plans to step away to seek new opportunities.
“If I were to seek a fourth term, I would have considered it my promise to the voters of Yuba County that I would, in fact, serve for six more years,” O’Connor said. “In six more years, I would be pushing 80 years old. Rather than renege on what I, personally, would consider a solemn promise, I would prefer to not seek a fourth term. I feel like I am still on top of my game, and I would like to step down while I can give 100 percent to the office.”
The journey to this point didn’t come without challenges for the Wheatland native. In law school in the 1970s, she was one of 10 women in a class of 180 law students. She and her female colleagues made a concerted effort to be considered equals among their male counterparts, like when her male professors would ask them to serve the coffee, they’d refuse because that same request would never be made for the male law students.
When one professor made fun of an outfit she was wearing – fashionable slacks that he referred to as “pajamas” – the group of female law students all came to class the next day wearing pajamas and carrying teddy bears to emphasize they wanted the same respect shown to them as their male counterparts.
That didn’t end once she graduated. When she returned to the Yuba-Sutter area to practice law, she was taken aback when she couldn’t find a job at any local law firms. A male attorney at the time informed her that hiring women was considered imprudent.
“It was common culture to believe that a female attorney would be catty and fight with the secretaries, that she would become pregnant and leave the firm after being trained, and that she would be too emotional in court,” O’Connor said. “The only feasible way that I found to stay in Yuba County to practice law was to open my law practice as a sole practitioner.”
Still, she couldn’t even obtain legal malpractice insurance without first having her then-husband, who was an attorney at the time, agree to supervise her work.
She dealt with gender-specific stereotypes as well on the campaign trail, but she overcame them. In 2002, over 65 percent of Yuba County voters chose her in a three-person race – nearly 30 years after she first became licensed to practice law.
After graduating from Wheatland High School, she attended Yuba College. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University before receiving her law degree from the University of California, Davis.
She ran her own private law office in Marysville for approximately 18 years before joining the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office, where she is credited for assisting in the implementation of the first grant-funded domestic violence prosecution program in Yuba County. During that time, she also obtained certification through the State Bar of California as a criminal law specialist.
She then joined the California State Board of Equalization where she conducted business tax appeals and drafted decisions for the board members, as well as summary decisions or formal opinions for the board members in franchise and income tax matters.
During her time as a judge, she said she is most proud of presiding over small claims night court, which allowed her access to litigants that worked during the day. She served as the presiding judge of the Appellate Division for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018.
“What I will miss most about being a judge is the ability to do what is right, instead of advocating for a certain side. While a Superior Court judge must follow the law enacted by the Legislature, many times the discretion that is afforded to the position allows one to make a difference,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor’s current term ends in January 2021. She said not running for a fourth term will allow her to pursue new challenges.
“I have no intention of seeking leisurely pursuits once my time on the bench ends,” she said. “I am a firm believer that when one door closes, another will open, and I am excited to see what is in store for me.”
Despite the barriers that stood in front of her, she dedicated her life to pursuing a dream that she promised her late-father she would. While a lot has changed in the years since, she hopes her journey can inspire the next generation of dreamers.
“If you have a dream, a passion that you have not yet been able to pursue, don’t think that time has passed you by. Take a leap of faith and don’t second-guess yourself,” O’Connor said. “During my initial campaign I opened a fortune cookie with the fortune: ‘With risk may come failure, but success cannot come without it.’ These words will continue to guide me in the years to come.”