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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unable to stomach retirement, volunteer attorney Jim Emacio receives Spokane County’s first-ever lifetime achievement award

In early 1973, a 26-year-old Jim Emacio accepted a job offer from Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Donald Brockett.

The job was Spokane County chief civil deputy, the in-house legal counsel for the county’s top elected officials. It was a significant role for a young lawyer and, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly the role Emacio was born to play.

Emacio, 76, spent the next 45 years as chief civil deputy and continues to work for Spokane County part-time as an unpaid volunteer. Generations of county politicians from across the political spectrum praise his professionalism and marvel at his near-photographic memory of Washington law.

In recognition of his half-century of service, Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney on Thursday awarded Emacio the county’s first-ever lifetime achievement award. She presented him with the trophy during the annual State of the County address at the Spokane Convention Center.

Emacio, who didn’t know about the award until he was brought onstage to accept it, said he was humbled.

“I hope that I can continue to provide whatever assistance I can to make this community a great community,” he said. “Thank you very much for this honor.”

Over the last 50 years, Emacio has provided legal advice to more than two dozen Spokane County commissioners. He’s represented the county in court countless times and helped create numerous governmental entities, such as the Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane Public Facilities District. Few people, if any, know more about Spokane County government.

Emacio said he’s always loved his job.

“My job has been my mistress and my hobby,” he said.

Emacio’s loved his work so much that he couldn’t handle leaving it. He tried retiring in June 2018 as a 71-year-old and, by his own recollection, unretired a month later.

Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell, Emacio’s current boss, said the retirement lasted less than a week.

“I gave him his 45-year service pin,” Haskell said in an interview Thursday, “and I was at work a day or two later, and there he is in his tie, in his shirt, in those slacks just like he is today, and he says, ‘Would you consider signing me up as a special deputy?’

“How could I say no?”

Today, Emacio works as one of Spokane County’s attorneys for free. He continues to advise the Spokane County Commission just as he has for five decades, albeit in a diminished role.

Chris Anderson, the man who holds Emacio’s former job, said he “puts in just as many hours as most of the rest of the attorneys.”

While Emacio has loved working as a government lawyer, he’s abhorred the attention that often comes with it. He’s often resistant to giving on-the-record interviews to the press, although he made a rare exception and reluctantly agreed to answer two or three of a reporter’s questions Thursday.

“He doesn’t like the limelight,” Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said. “But he deserves it.”

Kuney and Haskell both said Emacio wouldn’t have shown up to the State of the County if he’d known about the award.

“We knew that we had to be prepared to use an armed escort to get him up to the stage,” Haskell said, “because he’s that humble.”

Humility is just one of Emacio’s noteworthy traits. He has a measured way of speaking during public meetings, choosing his words carefully and never saying ‘Um.’ And the only time he’s ever missed his daily workout in the last handful of decades is when he was hospitalized.

After giving so much of his life to Spokane County, Emacio admitted receiving the lifetime achievement award meant a lot to him.

“I didn’t cry,” he said after the State of the County, as attendees walked over to shake his hand. “I was pretty close.”