The Dumbest Person in The Room
Maybe you have been told or think the judge is the dumbest person in the room in any debate. I am here to tell you now, that is a lie. At least ninety-nine percent of the time, I would expect your judge to be a reasonably intelligent, well informed member of society. Considering that juries on capital murder trials are selected from ordinary citizens of all walks of life, we can see practically any ordinary citizen can be expected to make decisions correctly, based on evidence and arguments and those decisions, carry far more weight and impact than any arising in the course of even the most prestigious debate tournament. In some murder trials, the evidence is incredibly complex and very technical, covering aspects of medical and forensic science, physics, logic, logistics, you name it. Yet, somehow, juries of ordinary men and women are capable of assimilating and evaluating the evidence and rendering a decision.
Therefore, you may think the judge is the dumbest person in the room, but if the judge fails to evaluate your case properly, ask yourself again, who has failed? Especially, considering that debate judges tend to be more practiced and suited to evaluating cases than the average capital murder, jurist is capable of valuating forensic evidence. If there is any good reason to think your judge is stupid it is so you can remember to present your case in the most thorough and understanding way possible. If you fail to do so, it may turn out, you are the dumbest person in the room.
The Myth of the Blank Slate
Quite often we hear that judges are "tabla rasa", meaning blank slates. Tabla rasa is a philosophical concept which one can liken to the state of mind of a newborn child devoid of any knowledge or ideas which arise from experience and observation. In instructions given to judges they are told they should be tabla rasa but there is little explanation of what that means in the context of debate. Basically a good judge should have no preconceived idea about who will win, and should at least assume a position which can lean affirmative or negative with equal propensity. To be fundamentally tabla rasa, judges should empty themselves of all preconceptions and knowledge and assume a position which basically says, there is no truth, no knowledge, apart from what is revealed in this debate round. In my opinion, the tabla rasa judge does not exist, and if they did, that is the judge you may really think is the dumbest in the room because they are by definition, incapable of evaluating claims based on their own experience. Tabla rasa judges are not only a myth (I'm sure exceptions exists somewhere in the wide-world of debate), they are judges you would probably not want in your round nor on your jury if you were a lawyer.
The Judge's Duty
Jurists know, when they are selected to serve they have a responsibility to evaluate the prosecution and defense cases as fairly as possible. Debate judges also know this, and even though a debate case will likely not impact society as much as a criminal trial, the sense of responsibility is still profound for many judges. This is even more true for the least experienced judges. The pressure on novice judges is often overwhelming and I have seen them literally breakdown from fear they may not be capable of fulfilling their sense of duty. It is important, I think, that debaters recognize the sense of duty the judge possesses and realize they generally want to do the right thing and render a fair decision relative to what they perceive a neutral position to be.
Types of Judges
Debate theorists have many ways of categorizing judges according to their method of evaluating cases. You may have heard of policy maker judges, game players, tabla rasa, stock issues, etc. and you learn that judges may be one or the other or some combination of several. Debater's also have their own ways of categorizing judges, such as, old school, parent judge or mom judge, speech judge, etc. Some judges are combinations of the attributes and some simply defy classification. In many tournaments, judges will disclose their preferences on paradigm sheets or websites and debaters and their coaches have an opportunity to examine these disclosures prior to the round. Remember, it is the judge who makes the disclosure so the debater must put a certain amount of trust in the fact the judges are properly evaluating themselves. If I say, for example I prefer evidence over pragmatic analysis, you would be correct to rely more on evidence than just getting up and explaining your reasons for believing something. Nevertheless, the paradigm sheet does not tell you that if your evidence is from questionable sources, or biased, or generally in contrast to what I know about the topic I am going to put more weight on analytics as a sort of check on reasonability. If the paradigm sheet says I hate theory, you may be inclined to never make a theory argument but yet there is a very good chance I will be applying my knowledge of debate theory in determining whether each case falls within my expectations of what constitutes valid evaluation criteria and my ideas of how arguments should be weighed. And if it turns out the Affirmative is not topical you can bet I would still listen to Neg make that case as an apriori which must be resolved before Aff can even think about moving the debate down the road. Therefore, whether I realize it or not, I am willing to listen to and judge a theory argument even though I may hate having to do it. That is a key point. The judge may hate it but often the judge will do it if forced.
What we see is, paradigm sheets can be misleading, not because the judge lies or tries to intentionally mislead but because most judges are remarkably flexible and will evaluate a case using any means at her disposal. What the paradigm sheet gives you is some indication about how open the judge is to certain kinds of arguments or better to say, how easily the judge can be tilted toward your point of view using a particular argumentation style. One should never look at the paradigm sheet as an absolute guide to how to win the judge's opinion without realizing that if the judge is left no other choice, the judge will swing completely toward the other end of the scale in order to reach a conclusion. They must. It is their duty to do the right thing and reach a decision.
Evaluate Your Judge
So how does a debater know what kind of judge they are facing? Certainly, paradigm sheets may provide some insights, and probably one important way is to keep a file on all of the judges you have faced in the past as you are likely to face them again in the course of a season. Not every tournament has a place for judges to disclose their preferences and often the judge has never been seen before.
Start With The District Paradigm
Every district has a paradigm and you should make an effort to know it especially if it is a district where you do not normally debate. Know which schools in the district tend to dominate the debate category you do and evaluate that team style. Do they run theory and critiques? Are their cases heavy with philosophy or pragmatism. How important is evidence? Do they speed read or is speech clarity important? Properly evaluating this will go a long way toward telling you how you should present your cases because clearly the dominant schools win most of the cases and so the local judges are already predisposed to their style of argumentation. Additionally, you should consider that novice judges are trained by the local seasoned judges and so the paradigms of the senior judges are often passed on to the new judges. It is the random judge from outside of the district who will be the least predictable. If you know nothing else about the judge pool, the laws of probability suggest falling in line with the style of the most dominate teams will increase your odds of winning.
The Judge's Experience
Probably more important than anything else on the paradigm sheet or disclosure is the place where the judge reveals their experience and if they do not, see if you can find out. Do they judge national circuit debate? Do they coach? If so, who or where and for how long? How long have they judged? One very important indicator is do they coach or judge other forms of debate other than the one you debate. If, for example, you debate LD and the judge also judges or coaches PF you can pretty much forget about running theory, critiques, spreading, etc. If the judge also is involved in policy perhaps you have a better chance of using policy-like arguments and style. Keep in mind, a coach is more likely to stick to the "rules" than someone who is only a judge (such as a well experienced parent or former debater). In many ways, ex-debaters are dangerous (translated as least flexible) judges unless they have been out of debate for a number of years but actively judging the whole time. Recent graduates, according to my experience, tend to judge very closely according to their own style and so it would be helpful if dealing with a recent graduate debater to find out what their style of debate was. Perhaps ask an older rival who may have debated the graduate in the past. If you can't find that out, rely on the fact they are likely in line with their former coach's paradigm or their former district paradigm.
In most situations, you will have some idea of who will be judging prior to the start of the tournament so it can be worthwhile and practical to find out what you can about potential judges. Most national circuit tournaments require full disclosure and so not only do debaters disclose their cases, judges must also disclose their preferences. Today, it is rare to find so-called paradigm sheets on the national circuit. Instead, the preference is for narrative disclosure where the judge writes a paragraph revealing preferences. For me, this is only as reliable as the judge's ability to accurately assess themselves. I would like to know about their experience besides just their personal points of view on certain types of arguments. In any case, the point is, if your judge is a national circuit judge, see if you can find the judge's disclosure online and add it to your judges file.
The next thing to be aware of, are indications of strong opinions. If you have access to a paradigm sheet these will be the ones which are marked at the extreme ends of scales. For example, a paradigm which states "How important is evidence" with a scale from "not at all" to "very important", look for markings that are at the extremes. Also look for strong positional statements in narrative disclosures or in a comment section of the paradigm sheet. For example if a judge writes "I do not vote on topicality" that is a pretty strong statement and one you better not ignore. In some cases, judges simply will not go where you want them to go. For example, if the judge says I will not vote topicality, and the Aff's case is clearly non-topical you basically have three courses of action available to you. You may ignore the judge and run a topicality violation argument, you may try to find a subtle way to point out the topicality violation, or you may simply let it go and trust that the judge will see the case as non-topical without your help. Indeed, some judges do not like to be told how to judge a case and arguing topicality with voters is really you telling the judge, the Aff is in violation and you must vote against the Aff case. There are several reasons, why the judge may say "I don't vote topicality (or critiques, or counterplans, or theory). One, the judge may feel such arguments are bad for debate or education so it is better to argue the non-topical case rather than argue about some procedural or theory violation and certainly it is not unheard of that teams will make these arguments as a time skew and add extra, often unnecessary burdens to the opponent. Two, the judge may simply feel he or she will decide what is topical and doesn't desire your help in pointing out violations. Three, the judge may be saying I will listen to and consider your topicality argument but it will not be a reason for decision. This final position is actually the most favorable in my opinion because its like saying, "make your case without the voters" and the weight of your arguments have a good chance of invoking an overall negative impression of the Aff case.
I believe it is never a good idea to let the judge take a proactive position in the debate until its time to make a decision. It is not a good idea to assume the judge will see the violation so there is no need to point it out. You still must make the argument and point out the violation. There is always the risk the judge will deny your argument and vote you down. For me, the safest thing to do, is make the argument Aff is non-topical and then continue with the Negative case and arguments against any parts of the Aff case which can be reasonably attacked. In this way, you bring the violation to the judge's attention but it does not become the central argument of your case, it is simply treated as one more attack on the Affirmative. Just don't expect to see "RFD: topicality" on the ballot.
The Policy Paradigms
Unique to policy and becoming more so in LD is the disclosure sheet which asks the judge to specify a paradigm such as stock issue, games player, policy maker, etc. (see this link for an explanation). Certainly these classifications give you some clues about what kind of criteria the judge uses to evaluate cases but one sees more and more judges that blend their paradigms. For example a judge may declare themselves a policy maker AND games player. This makes it very difficult to pin down the judge to specifics. It is better if the judge claims a specific paradigm.
Given the fact even the most inexperienced judges have intelligence, common sense, experience, and normal to advanced educations, it is unlikely you will encounter a true "blank slate". Every judge has some degree of preconception about morality, politics, economics, rights, etc. and it is unreasonable to think or expect the judge to flush all of that prior to a round. The experience, observations and knowledge of the judge is going to be used to evaluate your case. You need to assume the judge has at least started with a measure of neutrality in her initial response to the resolution. In fact, I would say it is not the resolution but the warrants of your position that begin to bias the judge one way or the other. Often there arises situations where the judge is missing information or more seriously, a claim is made which violates a preconception of the judge. When this happens, judges begin to naturally intervene in the case by filling in the missing pieces or they begin to rationalize the conflict your claims have introduced. While some level of intervention is unavoidable and perhaps even desirable, when judges begin to mentally argue a case or add content that has not been introduced by the debaters it can become a problem. When a debater makes claims, backed up with evidence that seriously conflicts with something the judge firmly believed was true the judge may reject your claim, not based on anything the opponent said. It is very difficult to demarcate the line between sufficient and necessary intervention and excessive, perhaps abusive intervention by judges. For example, if a debater made some obviously false claim one may expect the judge to see it for it was and reject it without need for the opponent to spend several minutes arguing against it. On the other hand, for example, if a debater makes an argument with evidence that global warming is anthropogenic, one would not expect the judge to reject the argument simply because the judge has a different understanding of the source of global warming. Abusive intervention by judges usually arise from controversial claims and it is not always possible to predict or control the judge's reaction. Note it, remember it, and next time you meet that judge do your best to avoid controversial claims knowing the judge is an interventionist judge. In a round you win when you remember you do not need to be right or find the truth. You need to persuade the judge.
Lay Judges vs Expert Judges
There are obvious differences in the way a lay judge and so-called expert judge approach cases. We can define expert judges as those who are coaches, former or current debaters and debate theorists. At the other extreme are those judges who have never debated or actively coached or taught debate. In between, are those who may have debated or coached but have not done so for so long, they are not necessarily familiar with current practices and styles. One other class of judges would be the bona-fide topic experts who are otherwise considered lay judges. For example, a NASA Engineer, judging a debate about space development or some such resolution familiar to the expert. These judges know the topic but probably nothing about NFL debate.
All of these kinds of judges have specific ways they should be approached and influenced. For example, lay judges are probably much more concerned about such things as appearance and style than expert judges. Lay judges may be more aware of rules or procedure violations than expert judges. Critical and theoretical arguments about debate are not likely to do well with lay judges and sadly many debaters look at these judges as undesirable. You do well to remember that in some cases, lay judges evolve into experts and the better approach is to recognize the differences and tailor the case to the judge rather than expect the judge to meet your expectations.
Conclusion For Now
There is much, much more I can write about judges, their paradigms and judge adaptation and indeed I probably will write about it again and again. One of the resounding themes I have repeated over and over is the issue of truth. Despite the fact it is called forensics, the purpose of the round is not to root out the absolute truth with regard to a resolution. In fact it does not matter if the truth about the resolution is ever uncovered. Our desire is to win the debate and in the process gain education from the whole of the experience. The truth we discover in the round will at best be relative to the preconceptions of the judge and the team that prevails will be the team that succeeds in swaying the judge, not overwhelmingly but just more than the opponent. The key to success is to win more debates and one of the keys to winning is understanding how to understand and adapt to the judge's preferences. Consider how the clever lawyer can convice a jury to vote a certain way, even jurists who may lack skills that even novice debaters possess. Adapt and win. Otherwise, reconsider who is the dumbest person in the room.