Gwinnett County Senior Magistrate Judge Emily Powell with one of her grandchildren. Powell died New Year’s Eve, some 11 days after being hit by a truck while walking on a Buford street. FAMILY PHOTO

Judge blazed Gwinnett trails before untimely death

Emily Powell’s life was sprinkled with firsts.

The Gwinnett County senior magistrate judge graduated from her father’s alma mater, Davidson College, in the first class to include female students. After Georgia created the magistrate court system in 1983, she was one of the original crop of magistrates appointed. She was a graduate of Leadership Gwinnett’s inaugural 1986 class.

And she was a mentor to newly-appointed fellow judges in Gwinnett County’s growing system.

But friends and family say a common theme bundled her accomplishments together. She brought a sense of no-nonsense calmness, fairness and a sense of style to everything from sorting out a messy domestic-violence restraining order to raising children to her artistic endeavors.

“Everything she touched became more beautiful, “said her husband Tony Powell, an attorney and former Lawrenceville City Council member. “Even politics.”

Judge Emily Powell, 64, died Dec. 31 of injuries sustained Dec. 20 when she was struck by a vehicle while crossing a Buford street.

A memorial service is set for 4 p.m., January 18, at the Buford Church of God, 4800 S. Lee St. The family will receive visitors from 2 until the service starts.

Friends and family say her Christian faith, intellect and ability to connect on a personal level propelled her to success. Her moral underpinnings and a sense of service were laid down in her life early. She was born Sept. 30, 1955, in Richmond, Va., to a Presbyterian minister father and a nurse mother.

The family moved to North Carolina, where Powell graduated in 1977 with Davidson College’s first class that admitted female students. Then it was off to Mercer University in Georgia for law school. There she met her future husband, who fell in love with both her personal style and her mind.

“Emily loved colors and had a sense of how to put them together to create something more beautiful,” husband Tony said.

She indulged herself in quilting, knitting, piano-playing and interior decorating.

Judge Emily Powell’s husband Tony shows off one of the handmade quilts she was known for making.

“She dressed a little differently and had her own style. And she had a great mind that went with those artistic gifts. There was an intellectual level there that was well beyond my reach.”

After a stint in private legal work, Powell was appointed as a magistrate in the early 1980s. She worked, left to raise her kids for a time and then returned as the magistrate division grew from a two-room office off the square in Lawrenceville to a 25-judge division.

Chief Magistrate Judge Kristina Hammer Blum said her friend handled whatever matter might present itself in the court’s 24/7 environment. It could be a family violence matter, a police officer applying for a warrant or a a first appearance for a criminal suspect.

“It might be someone coming through the door saying ‘I don’t know how to access the justice system. What do I do?’ ” Blum said.

The details were sometimes messy, even gory, but Powell handled the work with aplomb.

Powell eschewed the spotlight, said Blum and was a judge who “understood that the mission of the courts was to provide access to the system for those who needed it the most.”

Husband Tony Powell said Emily bore up well doing a tough job by building strong relationships with her fellow judges and others in the court system.

Longtime magistrate and soon-to-be Superior Court judge Angela Duncan called Powell a patient and constructively criticizing mentor who helped shepherd her through the early part of her career, navigating courtroom process and untangling legal issues.

But she says Powell’s teaching by example went beyond the courtroom.

“When I had an unexpected emergency surgery nine or ten years ago Emily was one of the first people to come by and provide meals for my family and make sure my boys were taken care of while I was recovering,” Duncan said.

Powell’s steady style was also on full display away from public life, said son Nathan, a Gwinnett County attorney.

“Someone once asked a neighbor of ours how my mom raised us kids. The neighbor told that person that she raised them with an iron fist. My mom was quite proud to hear that,” he said.

At the same time, she fiercely defended family members when they were wronged or were struggling, and she made sure birthdays and special occasions were fully celebrated.

“She knew that we could do more than she believed we could do, and she got the best out of us,” he said.

Robin Tabor’s daughter became friends with Powell’s daughter Jessica while both attended Greater Atlanta Christian School.

Years later, Tabor’s daughter married and moved to Dallas, Texas. After a trip there to help her relocate, Tabor returned home and was reduced to tears.

“I came back and I didn’t want to go to a lunch with some of the moms. I wanted to have a pity party and wallow in my sadness. Emily didn’t let me do that. She showed up at my house and made me get dressed up and go.”

“She had a knack for knowing what people needed and a way of moving people along to get them to that point,” Tabor said.

Blum and county officials are working to create a memorial to Powell.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Emily Powell

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