Thursday, January 20, 2011

Notes from the Judges' Lounge, Part 2

My stint as a judge at a debate tournament
(Part 2)

For those who haven’t already lost interest, here is a description of the first event I judged:

At 9:40 I am assigned to judge a “Public Forum” event.  Public Forum is a debate with two students on each side of the argument.  When I arrive in my assigned room, the competitors (high school students) are already there.  All the students wear dark suits and look lawyerly.  I am not in a suit, though.  Right off the bat, one of the students politely asks, “Will you permit us to use a cell phone as a timer?”  These students are all so earnest, and so destined for greatness.  And they know it.   Would they ever break a rule?  I can’t tell, but possibly their earnestness hides a vicious cut-throat mentality.
I allow cell phones for timers.  I also admit to these students that this is my first time judging.  I detect no crestfallen looks, but I feel that already I have let them down.  They are thinking to themselves, This housewife knows nothing about how to do this, and she is going to be a dud as a judge.  I am destined for greatness and she is destined to clean the house.  I do not let on that I am no good at cleaning the house either.

I reach back in my mind to my successful job interview technique:  I pretend to be somebody else.  I am pretending to be Judge Joleen.  Tough but fair.  Knowledgeable and in charge. My thoughts are not judge-like, though.  I am thinking, Listening to the arguments and giving time signals is beyond my mental capacity.”  I am also thinking, Breakfast was about 3 ½ hours ago.  Where’s my doughnut?

The resolution to be debated is “In the United States, plea bargaining is detrimental to the criminal justice system.”  I am supposed to flip a coin to determine who gets to choose the side they will argue.  Flipping the coin goes badly, tarnishing the reputation of Judge Joleen. 

We proceed.  The solemn dark-suited students address me as the authority, urging me to vote for their side.  I furiously jot down their arguments, missing half of what they are saying. Ooops!  Time to look at the stopwatch.  

The first speaker (arguing the PRO side) is nervous, and has some trouble getting some of his words out, but I like his contentions: The justice system is there to provide our rights to a trial by jury, and plea bargaining is coercive.  The second speaker (arguing the CON side) seems more self-assured and launches into a tirade about plea bargaining’s efficiencies.  The court system would collapse without plea bargaining.

The whole thing is rather ridiculous.  It seems so unlikely that any of these four kids will have to make a plea bargain before a real judge.  They go at it: 4 minutes for this side, 4 minutes for that side, 3 minutes to shout at and interrupt each other.  And again, and again. I find that by the time we get to the end of this experience 45 minutes later, they have simply managed to repeat their initial arguments two or three times. I got one good quote: “This is the justice system, not the efficiency system.” 

When the CON side says that justice is served during plea bargaining because the accused has a lawyer to give advice, the PRO side makes an excellent point that those lawyers are probably not well paid; what incentive do they really have to provide excellent legal advice?  I agree with the PRO side on both those counts, but they begin to lose when they try to refute CON side’s proof that plea bargaining has been ruled constitutional.  The PRO guys say, “But slavery was once considered constitutional.”  I have to agree with the CON folks that slavery is tangential to this resolution, and that we are not arguing constitutionality.  (Or are we?  The whole criminal justice system relies on the authority of the constitution, doesn’t it?)

At the end I want to go back and ask them, “What was it you said about….”  and “What did you really mean by…”  but I am not allowed.  The four earnest students thank me, shake my hand, and leave me to JUDGE them.  

The thing is that I don’t care very much how I judge them.  I am like those lawyers they mentioned – not very well paid for my services today. In fact, no one is paying me anything, I am paying $6 for parking.  But I genuinely believe that both sides were well prepared, the contentions were well argued, so I give the PRO side 28 points and the CON side 29 points (out of 30 possible points).  It’s an easy A with Judge Joleen. 

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