For most of her life, Amanda Harmon believed the courts were fair and just.
Save for a few traffic-related instances, Harmon had rarely dealt with legal issues. A courtroom didn’t give her anxiety. It didn’t give her fear.
But her whole perception of justice changed after her time in Judge Ryan Kamada’s Greeley courtroom.
“I knew right away he was crooked,” Harmon said. “There was something corrupt and vile about him.”
Her suspicions were confirmed, she said, when the former Weld County District Court judge pleaded guilty last year to obstructing a federal investigation into a large-scale cocaine trafficking organization.
A disciplinary investigation showed Kamada had also maintained long-running text chains with his friends, during which he disparaged those appearing in his court, mocked attorneys and joked about the safety of children as he decided on custody arrangements.
Kamada resigned from the bench last year, was disbarred this summer and soon could face prison time.
But while Kamada is no longer a judge, his rulings continue to be felt by Harmon and a host of other families, who are now expressing dismay, alleging their cases were tainted by the disgraced judge as they wonder how they can make their voices heard.
“All of these decisions are fruit of a poisoned tree,” Harmon said.
Investigation into Kamada
Kamada’s downfall began in October 2018, when a federal task force began investigating a drug trafficking organization that was distributing large amounts of cocaine throughout northern Colorado, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado. Investigators realized that Kamada had known one of the drug traffickers since high school.
Just one month earlier, former Gov. John Hickenlooper had appointed Kamada to replace Elizabeth Strobel as a district court judge in Weld County.
In April 2019, Kamada received a call from a task force officer seeking a search warrant as part of an investigation into a suspected drug trafficker named Alberta Loya, according to the former judge’s admission of misconduct during his review before the Colorado Supreme Court. The officer noted that Kamada was friends with Loya on Facebook, prompting the judge to recuse himself from the case.
But the next morning, Kamada called his best friend, an assistant middle school principal named Geoffrey Chacon, who also grew up with Loya, investigators said. Kamada warned Chacon that authorities were following Loya and that his friend should stay away from him.
Chacon then notified Loya about the warrant, and changed his own behavior “in order to avoid law enforcement attention,” federal prosecutors said.
In August 2019, Kamada resigned from the bench. Two months later, Chacon pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of destruction of records with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation.
Loya was indicted on 21 counts related to drug trafficking activity, and pleaded guilty to felony counts of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a controlled substance and conspiracy to launder money. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June.
Also in June, Kamada pleaded guilty to obstructing the federal investigation, and in August he was disbarred for violating eight different rules of professional and judicial conduct. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Dec. 4, and could face between 12 and 41 months in prison, according to his plea agreement.
John Gleason, who represented Kamada during his disciplinary review process, told The Denver Post that “everything I’ve heard about him is that he was a great lawyer and great judge who simply made a mistake, and he’s paid dearly for it.”
Kamada, through his criminal defense attorney, declined to comment.
But during the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s investigation into his misconduct, new details emerged about Kamada’s behavior during his time on the bench.
As a magistrate judge, Kamada would routinely text his friends information about people and cases in his courtroom, according to the stipulation filed with the Colorado Supreme Court, which deals with attorney discipline.
In one September 2016 exchange, a friend asked the judge to look up information on an individual.
That person, Kamada said, “wasn’t convicted of the sex assault but he was on other charges and ended up in (expletive) prison man … Oh yeah. He was (expletive) a 14-year-old and giving her cocaine. Don’t say anything man,” according transcripts of the text in the stipulation.
In a December 2016 group text, Kamada talked about a former client, saying, “I did her custody (expletive) and she is one strange cat. If that kid lives I’ll be shocked.”
Soon after beginning his role as a district court judge in January 2019, Kamada was presiding over a divorce proceeding, which included an allocation of parental rights.
Kamada texted a photo of the divorce papers, telling his friends that he was “going to grant this today so she is free game tomorrow night.”
Fighting for new judgements
When Amy Barton heard these allegations, it confirmed her gut feeling that something just wasn’t right in Kamada’s courtroom.
She and her ex-husband appeared before Kamada four years ago for a child custody case and “the whole time in court, (Kamada) was picking his fingernails and you could tell he wasn’t paying attention,” Barton said. “He was completely checked out.”
For Barton and others who appeared before the judge, word of his indictment and disbarment served as a modicum of good news — “karma finally bit him in the (expletive),” she said.
But when several people appealed to get Kamada’s judgements vacated or their cases reheard, they were denied.
“It seems like the courts are trying to sweep it under the rug,” Harmon said.
While Kamada’s actions may be well-deserving of removal from the bench or disbarment, that does not mean that everything he touched gets to be relitigated, said Eli Wald, a professor and legal ethics scholar at the University of Denver’ Sturm College of Law.
“The thing we worry about most is the integrity of the proceedings and compliance with the law and perception of law and justice,” Wald said. “Unless there’s anything in the removal proceedings that causes us to doubt the integrity of the proceedings, the mere removal (of a judge) should not cause us to worry about revisiting every case.”
This feels like a miscarriage of justice, Barton and Harmon said. And it has both of them, along with others who dealt with Kamada, questioning their belief in the entire judicial system.
“It’s disheartening knowing this man was appointed to a position that is supposed to uphold ethics and be honorable, and he’s doing such skeezy stuff,” Barton said.
That hasn’t stopped a group from organizing to raise awareness. A group of about 15 parents who had Kamada preside over their cases started a Facebook group, with people talking about a filing a lawsuit or protesting in front of the courthouse. The court may not rehear their cases. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be silent.
“It’s always strength in numbers,” Barton said. “If five of us say we want change, they can ignore us. But if we get hundreds, then they have to listen.”
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