Why Can Lay Judges Be a Problem

Chetan Yenigalla | 3/11/22

Who do we all hate the most? “Lay” judges! They show up everywhere these days in every single tournament. It wasn’t as bad before COVID struck and there were usually 1 or 2 lay judges per tournament. Now that the tournaments are online, every single team asks their parents to judge, and we the debaters feel their wrath.

Why are they so bad you might be wondering. Well, let's start from the top (because that's usually where they make their decisions). Lay judges have a winner picked out right after cases are read. We know this because their RFDs say stuff like “the better presentation” or “a more logical case.” After that, they try to listen in rebuttal and summary but slowly knock off speaker points because we speak too fast. How are we supposed to fit in all of our responses at a normal pace?! We only have 3-4 minutes!!

This issue has to be addressed because countless debaters are losing rounds because of the judge’s own perception of the argument. The source of this issue comes down to the flow. Connor Engel from DebateDrills LLC explains that lay judges “disregard the flow.” The flow is the core of every debate round and if a judge does not utilize it in their decision-making process, then the round has gone to waste.

When competitors register judges, they should specify the experience of the judge in the most detailed manner. That means tournament experience, knowledge of debate norms, and flowing ability. From here, the coach associated with registration must respond with instruction on how to flow, understanding debater terms, and practice templates.

This may seem extremely tedious, but the lay judge simply needs to follow these instructions and practice with a round available online. The 2018 NSDA Public Forum National Finals is an excellent round to practice flowing to. All of these tasks will take no longer than a day or two. The judge will learn how to flow, understand the debaters, and not make their decisions after the case. This simple procedure will give inexperienced judges some insight into how a debate round (specifically Public Forum) works. Rounds can be decided more fairly and logically. The debaters won’t be wasting their time and the judges can be totally fair. A solution as simple as flow practice can make countless debaters more satisfied with their round decisions.

Now, let’s look at another lay judge norm: decision-making based on confidence instead of points. In my experience in tournaments with lay judges, they tend to focus a lot on how confidently the debaters speak rather than the points being made. This was made clear to me when I was spectating a round and heard a terminal defense point in rebuttal. I believed that the round was settled because the other team did not have any defense. However, in the end, the judge said that the side with the terminal offense lost because they did not speak confidently. The team tried to explain that their point was unrefuted but the judge claimed that it wasn’t strong enough and that they didn’t hear it properly.

Although I understand the judge’s reasoning that confidence must be shown, the judge must also listen to the points regardless of tone. If they cannot do this, there is a simple solution that has been implemented by some judges and debaters. Before the round starts, the debaters email the judge a copy of their case. This way, even if the judge misunderstands something, they can easily follow along in the case. Although this may seem unfair, it is a simple solution to keep lay judges from voting based on confidence. For late-round speeches such as rebuttal and summary, the teams can give off-time explanations or overviews. This does not conflict with NSDA rules AND gives the judge a clear understanding of what is going to be discussed, the responses that are going to be presented, and the preferred method of evaluating the round.

All of these may seem extremely high-maintenance and complicated, but frequently implementing them will allow lay judges to make more fair decisions, clearly understand all the arguments, organize their thought-process, and ensure that the debaters are satisfied. These habits can dilute poor judge norms over time and make debating come down to what it truly was meant to be: an art of convincing the audience.