James Candelaria graduated from Durango High School in 1982. Now, he’s been bestowed with a new honor in Southwest Colorado: U.S. magistrate judge.
The Durango native started representing the federal judiciary housed at the La Plata County Courthouse on Jan. 2, taking over for former magistrate David West. Starting a federal job during a government shutdown has been interesting, he said. All the administrative processes he needs to complete to get paid aren’t operating.
Candelaria is not new to the federal judiciary, however. He served for 17 years as a U.S. attorney in Durango.
“After 17 years, I’ve prosecuted pretty much every crime there is,” he said.
Candelaria moved to Durango from Denver, where he worked in private practice litigating civil lawsuits and, before that, clerked with a Colorado Supreme Court justice. He joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, and after six months there, a position opened for an assistant U.S. attorney in Durango.
“And since I was from here, I was the only one who wanted to come down here,” he said.
While serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Durango, Candelaria accepted a job that embedded him in Zambia, Africa, from 2008 to 2010. He went there to train Zambian judges and prosecutors on how to prosecute crimes against women. He collaborated with organizations there and helped write a gender-based anti-bias bill that was passed by the Zambian government in 2010, he said.
Then, in 2015, Candelaria went to Jamaica to assist prosecutors there with corruption and money-laundering cases.
When he was in the United States, he worked to prosecute federal crimes committed on nearby reservations. These crimes would otherwise have been prosecuted in Denver.
For most of Candelaria’s career as an assistant U.S. attorney, Native Americans who committed a federal crime or who were the victim of a federal crime would have to travel 350 miles north to Denver.
Candelaria said he hopes to continue in his advocacy for Native American communities he says “have been underserved by the Department of Justice and the courts.”
In the past five years, a presidentially appointed judge has been making trips on a monthly basis to Durango to hear federal cases, he said. And Colorado’s chief federal judge has expanded the jurisdiction of a federal magistrate to “hear more types of hearings and things that traditionally would have been done in Denver.”