The three judges who annoy me most are John Scoggin, Justice Kennedy, and Nick Steele.
Just kidding! Two of those are great judges! But I do have some complaints about LD judges that I’ve been meaning to get off my chest. Three judges who really annoy me are (1) judges who don’t pay attention to CX, (2) judges who don’t vote on disclosure theory, and (3) judges who judge schools they recently coached. All three cases should be uncontroversial because they stem from three obvious maxims: (1) pay attention, (2) don’t intervene, and (3) judge fairly. In short, do your job and you won’t fall into these three categories.
#1 Judges who don’t pay attention to CX.
I get that CX is generally less argumentatively important in LD than it is in policy. In policy, it’s much more common to force the opponents into a tough spot with a few pointed questions to leverage bad or non-answers later on in the debate. For example, “They couldn’t explain one scenario in CX for what two modern states would go to war over a lack of food, so don’t buy their food shortages extinction impact.” This type of reference to CX in policy debate is fairly common, but in LD it’s not.
However, when CX is referenced in LD, it is often of crucial importance. This is because primarily because (a) the threat of theory is so great that debaters will make all sorts of concessions, and (b) the resolutions are so vaguely worded that clarification of the plan of affirmative advocacy is necessary. For an example of (a), consider an exchange like this: Debater 1: “I’m going to run theory on your fourth spike if you don’t drop it.” Debater 2: “Okay fine, I’ll drop it.” Or, Debater 1: “Why do you say ‘presume neg’ – are you going to trigger presumption?.” Debater 2: “No, I won’t trigger presumption; I said that in case you made presumption arguments.” For an example of (b): Debater 1: “I want to make sure you don’t de-link out of my politics disad, so will you defend legislative action?” Debater 2: “No, I won’t defend legislative action.”
These and similar dialogues are common in CX in circuit LD, yet many judges aren’t paying attention. Usually, debaters will honestly report what happened in CX, but why trust them? Knowing for oneself gives a fuller picture of the debate and can help resolve controversies. I almost always pay attention to CX. In important rounds and outrounds, I flow CX. You should too.
#2 Judges who don’t vote on disclosure theory.
Debate is not about the judge. I am all for disclosing one’s personal biases and preferences and whatever else might help debaters adapt, but completely barring an argument type on the basis of some fringe debate theory view is something else entirely. These judges are not saving debaters from an extreme personal preference that might cost them the round; they are inserting their personal views in a way that selfishly takes the debate out of the hands of the debaters. If judges who don’t vote on disclosure theory think the respondent’s answers are so good, then they should give the respondent the chance to make those arguments!
I strongly believe that there is no reasonable basis for a Reverse Voting Issue in theory and topicality debates, but do I impose “no RVIs” as a part of my paradigm? Of course not! If the argument is dropped, for instance, and the expectation of everyone else in the room is that the dropped argument should be treated as true, then I would never impose my pet theories to judge the debate. I give the debater defending the RVI a chance to persuade me and the debater responding a chance to fail to make the right arguments. That’s what debate is about.
The only possible response I can see from these judges is that they truly cannot divorce their personal argument preferences from their rational assessment of high school debate rounds. First of all, they need to change their preferences. Disclosure is great. Disclosure theory is great. Second, they need to reassess their own abilities. Debaters run absurd arguments all the time – from ice age to time cube to the politics disad – and these judges don’t feel the need to bar them from the round. Many of the anti-disclosure folks are quite smart and competent judges. I have no doubt that they could fairly evaluate a debate about disclosure theory, which brings me to my last point.
Judges who won’t vote on disclosure theory put debaters who want to read disclosure theory in a really tough spot. What does one of these debaters do with ones of these judges if (s)he would be a 1, but for the disclosure view? The likely thing to do is pref the judge anyway and forego the disclosure theory option. This might severely hamper a debater’s strategy. Disclosure theory might simply be the best option in a particular debate. In an elim, disclosure theory might be the best strategy for two judges, but is barred because of the third judge’s fringe paradigm. I do believe debaters should adapt to judges, but the massive strategy skew enforced by the anti-disclosure contingent is just too much to ask.
#3 Judges who judge schools they recently coached.
Can a debate dinosaur fairly judge the school they coached during the 1987 season? Probably. Should someone judge the team they coached for many years in recent memory? Probably not.
Potential conflicts are generally tough for tournaments to regulate since they don’t have the relevant data, and they’re tough for the community to enforce since we don’t want to accuse another judge of bias. I don’t want to ‘call out’ my friends for judging students they probably shouldn’t. It’s embarrassing for both of us. The judge is stuck in a catch-22: Acknowledging the bias makes us think the judge should’ve stopped judging the students long ago, and refusing the charge of bias makes us think the judge has some vested interest in continuing to judge them. And if I suggest that we didn’t get a judge’s ballot because of bias, it seems like I’m a sore loser. That sends the wrong message to my students too.
Given all of this, judges who think they might be biased or perceived of bias should recuse themselves. There is an easy way to log conflicts on tabroom or by sending an e-mail to the tournament director. It’s private and effective, and it saves everyone some headache.
I’ve singled out judges who judge schools they’ve recently coached because it really requires little thought. Judges don’t need to assess their own biases to make this call because I can do it for them: If you judge a school you’ve coached recently, you will be perceived as biased.
I don’t know what the hard line is for when one can start judging a school again, but we should err on the side of caution. The line is probably at least after all the debaters on the team at the time have graduated. For most teams, that’s 4 years, but it could be longer if the team has middle schoolers. This moratorium should also reset if the judge judges that school again before the 4-5 years are up. The judge has raised suspicion, so (s)he should know that it will take some time for the community to accept that the school bias has dissipated.
There are also mitigating factors, of course. If a coach only privately worked with one student from the school, then bias is less likely. If a debater is a younger sibling of someone the judge coached or the judge’s close friend is now the head coach, then bias is more likely. Maybe 4 years isn’t enough in those cases. In any event, err on the side of caution and do the right thing.
Bob Overing | Co-Director
Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.