Applying a Lens of Clarity to the US Southeast Suspensions

I’ve been asked by some folks, both directly and indirectly, to help the broader judge community understand some of the internal workings and decisions which led to the suspensions of several US-Southeast judges. If you’ve been under a rock or disengaged from the judge program, these judges were part of a private group that Wizards found to be involved in a major early leak of three unreleased cards from Oath of the Gatewatch. By all accounts, the gentlest way to describe that aftermath is a “mess”.

This mess has caused some significant rifts in our community. As I’ve seen these rifts develop, I’ve also seen a fundamental imbalance in the information being shared. In-depth details of the internal processes at Wizards which led to the suspensions aren’t public, and I don’t expect those details to be shared beyond what’s already been stated and restated. This article doesn’t delve into the details from Wizards’ side. I don’t speak for them and I don’t oversee their decision-making. But I don’t see any good reason not to share the internal details of the Judge Conduct Committee’s (JCC) involvement in the interest of trying to mend some of those rifts.

I hope that by sharing these details, someone understands what happened a little better from one more of the many perspectives involved.

Dissecting the Timeline

If we’re preserving this mess for posterity in the hopes that the Judge Program can identify problematic decision making and make better decisions in the future, it doesn’t help anyone to be obscure or indirect. What follows below uses some pretty direct language. It captures the content of many messages and discussions, but I just can’t capture everything here.

The Regional Coordinators Advisory Committee (RCAC), JCC, and L4+ judges had threads comprised of more than 200 messages exchanged in just a few days of the announcement. Capturing all of that information here would be overly laborious and easily risk mis-characterization. It would also lack the consent of the others involved.

Where I quote a message, it’s the full text of what I sent unless noted otherwise. When I’m describing what others said, I’m usually paraphrasing the messages I received to inform my decision-making (to the extent I had decisions to make), but there are a couple obvious quotes. If anyone is interested in clarifying further or thinks I’ve missed something important, I’m open to hearing it.

Enough with the preamble. Here we go.

On December 18, I got a message from Aaron Hamer, the Interim Judge Community Manager, letting me know about the suspensions for all of the judges involved. There were no details about leaks or cards, and no indication that more details would be forthcoming. Wizards’ generally doesn’t share its internal investigation documents, and the JCC is no exception.

We don’t oversee them in any fashion. We abide by their decisions because they’re not decisions that we’re empowered to remake or question. There’s a fundamental dependency of the Judge Program on Wizards, and that’s not something I was (or am) capable of changing in that moment or any other. Ultimately, Magic is Wizards’ game and Wizards’ property, simple as that.

Knowing I would be unable to change or challenge the outcome, I triaged my emotional reactions and moved to the next tasks: damage control and continuity. Of course, I had lots of questions. What happens to their projects? Had they been notified? Would there be a public acknowledgement? Would they be able to access the Judge Center?

By the end of Friday, I still didn’t know the answers to those questions or whether anything had been sent to the judges (though they were in progress), so I just had to wait.

On the morning of Monday, December 21, I got confirmation that the messages had gone to the judges and I could begin notifying the JCC, RCAC, and L4+ judges.

Even that morning, it was unclear to me whether there would be a public acknowledgement. But Aaron was already working on it, of course, and he had lots of competing priorities in the moment. Considering all that he was given to do, I consider it a miracle that he made it through that day with his sense of purpose intact (to say nothing of the misdirected rage heaped on him later). To be clear, this is me projecting my own perceptions. I’m sure that final message wasn’t everything he wanted it to be, and neither was the follow up, but we work within the system of constraints we have. It just gets awkward when the people making the decisions aren’t the ones who have to communicate them (and perhaps that’s a theme here).

I didn’t want to delay the process any more than it had been already, and as soon as I had confirmation that the affected judges had been notified by Wizards, I sent this message to the JCC:

I’ve been informed by WotC that the following two judges have been suspended for two years. As they will lapse due to inactivity in this period, their judge levels are being set to “uncertified” in DCIX and JudgeApps.

Francisco Iramain (L2, US-SE)
Adam Hubble (L2, US-SE)

In addition, the following twelve judges have each been suspended for three months:

Justin Turner (L3/RC, US-SE)
William Matt Williams (L3, US-SE)
CJ Crooks (L3, US-SE)
Bryan Prillaman (L3, US-SE)
Ben McDole (L3, US-SE)
Brian Guess (L2, US-SE)
CJ Shrader (L2, US-SE)
George FitzGerald IV (L2, US-SE)
Michael Puccio (L2, US-NW)
Mike Lopez (L2, US-SE)
Katie Temple (L1, US-SE)
Will Besant (L1, US-SE)

We do not have details from WotC regarding the reasons for these suspensions, and we will not be getting further details as far as I know. We do not have control or oversight concerning these outcomes.

However, the protocol for handling a suspended judge still applies in these cases just as it has with other judges who have been suspended by the PIC or WotC.

Cri is in the process of establishing a continuity plan for Turner’s RC duties. Backup leaders for the major projects led by the judges listed above (Exemplar, for instance) have been notified.

In addition, I’ll be sending a brief notification to the RCAC and L4+ as with past similar cases. These will be listed with their expiration dates in the Misconduct Log as well, with the reason being simply “WotC-issued suspension”.

A quick note on the jargon above, the PIC is the Player Investigations Committee, which reviews disqualifications from tournaments and issues their associated penalties. This message is essentially the same as the ones I sent to the L4+ list and RCAC later that day, except it also included the first draft of the JCC’s message that would be sent to each judge later that day (the final message is further down), with a request for help in editing it if there was any way we could soften the blow.

The first reactions from the JCC members were, like mine the Friday previous, surprised and dismayed. I’ve combined my messages in the conversation with the JCC, but these are the points I covered with them, copied and pasted:

We have not been told whether there will be a public announcement by WotC. We have asked. Messages to the L4+ and RCAC will make it clear that:

1. This was not a JCC decision,
2. We do not know details, and
3. We do not know if we/when will get details.

WotC has informed me that the reason for these suspensions is “distributing confidential information”. They have approved including this in the notification to L4+ and RCAC.

Within the JCC, we discussed how project continuity was to be maintained, and we talked about how to be more supportive in communicating with the suspended judges. Jeremie Granat especially provided some very good language to this effect.

Once the notifications had been sent to the L4+ judges and RCAC, I sat with the messages for the individual judges as drafts. Normally we’d wait for the RCAC and L4+ judges to digest the information further or make suggestions, but these suspensions were different. They were already in effect, and our messages were needed to help clarify what it means to be suspended and a judge.

It was several hours before I worked up the nerve to hit “send”. I considered several of these judges friends. But neither the RCAC nor JCC had any decisions to make in this situation. I couldn’t change the outcome. I couldn’t even get the information I would need to make an informed decision on whether the outcome was a just one. Absent the ability to change or understand it better, we work within the constraints of the system and information we have. So I hit “send”. Here’s the message:

The Judge Conduct Committee has been made aware of your DCI/WPN suspension. This also means that you will be suspended from the Judge Program during this time.

I realize that this is a very challenging time for you, but I want to be clear here, too: You are a valued member of our community. We believe you are capable of overcoming this and fully rejoining the judge program once your suspension is over.

Below are a few answers to what we expect are questions running through your mind right now.

Your suspension from the Judge Program begins and ends on the same days as your DCI/WPN suspension begins and ends.

The length of your suspension may cause your certification status to change or lapse due to inactivity. If that happens, the normal process for recertifying will apply.

You are also expected to avoid acting as a judge or representing yourself as a judge during this time. You may not participate in any DCI or WPN sanctioned event as a judge. You may not participate in judge conferences.

The organizers for any events announced through JudgeApps for which you have currently been selected will be notified of this suspension.

Your JudgeApps account will remain active. However, you are expected to refrain from participating in discussions on forums limited to certified judges beyond reading them.

You may not participate in the Exemplar Program. Recognitions of you or submitted by you while suspended will not be published and will not have mailings associated with them. Planned mailings for recognitions submitted prior to your suspension (e.g. Wave 3) may proceed at WotC’s discretion.

You are not expected to remove yourself from non-JudgeApps groups or forums limited to certified judges, but you may be removed from those groups at the discretion of the individuals controlling them, following any protocol those groups decide to follow.

Your participation in ongoing judge projects is also suspended during this time. The leader of a project you have contributed to may decide to retain you as a participant in their project to ensure the project’s continuity when your suspension ends. These decisions are up to each project’s leader. If you lead a project, you should immediately hand off your leadership role to that project’s backup leader.

Your access to the Judge Center will not be affected by this suspension. You can still submit reviews, take practice exams, and otherwise use the Judge Center. You are encouraged to complete any reviews in progress. You should hand off any candidates for certification or advancement to another judge to ensure continuity of mentoring and avoid unnecessary delays.

If you have questions about this information, please let me know.

If you’ve followed the public discourse closely, you’ll see that there were several things I explained in this message that were later changed. For instance, the interactions with the Exemplar Program for these judges will be very different from how I described it. The suspended judges should see no impact to their Exemplar mailings for either Wave 3 or Wave 4, and that should be the case for other suspended judges in the future.

Some of the language in that letter also seems pretty vague. What’s “representing yourself as a judge” anyway? In general, a suspension is designed to have the suspended judge take a break from active, visible engagement while avoiding the loss of cutting them out completely. That change is complex and nuanced and difficult to capture concisely. The language in the letter is meant to convey that, but it clearly needs some improvement.

I’m convinced we need a middle ground between a warning letter and decertification, and this is the best we’ve come up with so far. There are multiple avenues that can lead to a suspension (WotC, PIC, or JCC), but “how a suspension works” should be clear and consistent. I’m also sure the JCC will find a way to improve it (and the language we use to communicate it) in the future.

In any case, what happened in the ensuing week is more or less complete in the public discourse if you look for it. Conflict and drama ensued. Each of the L4+ judges and many others shared their own messages in social media, trying to quell misinformation and encourage patience while the judges involved got their appeals together.

Here’s what I posted to Facebook:

Lots of other judges have posted their feelings about today’s Judge Program events in more eloquent and heartfelt words than I can muster in the moment. I’m not going to discuss the issues that led to their suspensions. They’re working on appeals. I trust it will resolve appropriately. That’s not my circus. This isn’t that post.

Absent my own flowery language, let me rely on those among whom I have found hope and motivation today:

Dan’s summary to the US NW Judges is exemplary in its simplicity and pragmatism. I admire his willingness to share his own feelings while also remaining open and present to help others.

Nicholas’ words to his region make me wish he was also my RC. He acknowledges the pain, fear, and dismay that many are feeling right now. And he reminds us to meet it with patience, with discretion, and diplomacy. Better advice is hard to come by.

Riki’s drive to find continuity and purpose in the face of mounting obstacles and negativity has been truly inspiring. It takes courage to ask for help, and more to accept it. He’s doing both and then turning it around to serve others. I can only hope to do so well.

Please, take their words to heart, and be excellent to one another.

There was extensive discussion among the RCAC and many others, of course, but I can’t claim a significant role in any of it. I was along for the ride like anyone else.

Turner reached out to me on December 29 to ask if there was a chance of changing course with regard to program-related projects rather than event-related tasks. I told him it would be difficult to change course without direction from Wizards, but that I would pose the issue to the L4+ judges, as the JCC was literally in the middle of its planned end-of-term transition. Here’s what I sent to the L4+ judges after that conversation:

Turner reached out today with an interest in changing some of the restrictions placed on him and the other suspended judges with regard to participation in the judge program.

Basically, his request is to remove everything that was stated in the message from the JCC. His argument is that the Magic Judge Code only references suspensions from the Player Investigations Committee, not from WotC directly. In writing the Code, we frankly considered that the PIC was the only entity which would issue a suspension of any length requiring the mess of a suspension. We expected that if WotC had an issue with a judge, it would be severe enough that they just wouldn’t be a judge anymore. He also argues that it wasn’t “misconduct” which led to his suspension.

To use his words, Turner’s message is: “Hey IMO let me exploit that loophole 😉 or as I’d put it, hold me to the printed standard you’ve published XD”.

My opinion is that these are technical loopholes that should be fixed through revisions. Conveniently, we’re issuing a revised Code at the beginning of the year, cleaning up this sort of language.

If we reverse this, it means allowing the suspended judges to participate in conferences go back to leading Exemplar, etc. They can already continue to be a part of ongoing projects if the project lead is OK with that, but leading the projects feels different.

Overall, this feels like he’s trying to maintain a sense of normal operation in the face of losing quite a lot with little warning. He also wants to keep contributing, and I want to support that in the interest of him continuing once his suspension is over.

However, this isn’t a decision I feel I can make on my own, even as a Sphere Leader. This has the potential to undermine WotC’s decision, just as if we had not treated these judges like any other suspended judge when the suspensions were handed down. It will probably also look like favoritism. If we turn him down, there’s a nonzero chance that he blows up at us, or waits and blows up at us after his appeal is decided by WotC.

I’d ask the JCC, but I am literally in the middle of changing over to the new committee members and putting together a year-end wrap up message

So, here’s my question for this group, all of whom I trust, and all of whom I believe have a valuable perspective on this topic:

Do we let the suspended judges out of the “No submitting Exemplar rec, no project leading, no conferences, etc” while they’re suspended?

Options include:
A: “Yes to helping behind the scenes, no to visible leadership tasks”,
B: “Yes, just let them do whatever they want as long as it’s not on an event, per the letter that came to them directly from WotC”,
C: “No, this is a technical loophole, identified by a significant and exceptional circumstance, fix it and have them wait until they’re no longer suspended”
D: Something else I haven’t considered yet.

Looking forward to hearing from each of you if you feel like you have a perspective to contribute.

Over the next couple days, there was discussion among the other L4+ judges over just how to approach this question. Just as in the initial response, there was no solid consensus among the L4+ judges. At least two were in the “B” camp, with the rest in a variety that sounded mostly like “C until we hear different from WotC, then maybe A or B depending on WotC’s answer”. Here’s what I shared with them as my own perspective on the issue, midway in that conversation.

I’m personally on board with C until I hear different from WotC, too. But as this affects more than just the JCC, I don’t want to make this decision without some understanding of this group’s perspective.

The JCC did not review any information in these cases, and probably won’t be able to even if we requested it. We also don’t review any information about PIC cases that don’t involve a judge-related issue. Without that, we have nothing to base a case on short of re-investigating it, which would interfere with WotC’s own investigation.

What if the statement provided to us by a judge is different than the one they provided to WotC (on appeal or otherwise)? We wouldn’t know without seeing WotC’s files, and that isn’t happening for outside-of-events stuff. That reveals their internal investigation techniques, and I’m sure it reveals more than their lawyers are comfortable with.

So we trust WotC. It’s their game. We go along with their decision.

The Code has language in it that if you’re suspended as a player, you’re also suspended as a judge. There’s a technical loophole in it that says “by the PIC” rather than “by the PIC or WotC” because we just assumed anything bad enough to result in a WotC suspension would be a suspension long enough to decert by lapsing.

If WotC doesn’t trust you to play in events, and your DCI number won’t allow you to be entered as a judge for an event, then at some point we’re just ignoring or undermining WotC’s decision when we say “OK, but attend this conference and have some foils anyway” or “Some judges disagreed with WotC and protested by giving you Exemplar recs, so have some foils for that, too”.

I understand that this decision specifically feels like it should be contested. And it is being contested. Their appeal contests the decision with the people who made it, and who are best positioned to make an informed decision about the appeal’s merits.

The JCC and the Judge Program don’t have that capability. Any decision we make in this case would be poorly informed.

Without a meaningful consensus on a change to our approach or course of action, the decision defaulted to waiting until the appeals were resolved.

This was reinforced a couple days later on January 3 when Bryan Prillaman sent a lengthy letter asking for essentially the same things Turner had already requested. I followed up with a phone call to Turner on January 4, which was followed by a text conversation which ended with me committing to writing this very article you’re reading now.

As it’s mentioned above, we were already in the middle of revisions to the Magic Judge Code, as part of the review inherent to continuous improvement, where we ask questions like, “What felt right about this year’s resolutions? What didn’t? What needs to be updated?” If you’re interested in the details, the Magic Judge Code has a changelog for exactly this purpose. This mess did highlight specific loopholes to close and language to clarify, obviously. But the process of revising the document was an effort already in progress when we learned about the suspensions, and not done solely in response to it.

The L4+ thread ended with a message from Aaron Hamer expressing a commitment that the appeals were in process, and communication with everyone involved and the program generally would improve. For my part, I believe wholeheartedly that Aaron has lived up to that commitment to the absolute best of his ability, and we have been fortunate to have him in his position.

That’s where the “insider” part of the timeline ends for me, effectively. I’m sure there were other conversations going on, but I wasn’t a part of them. Johanna directly took on further inquiries to the JCC, per her new duties (thank you!). I focused on my next GP (Oakland, the following weekend). Helene’s statements ending the suspensions were published on January 13, and the JCC followed immediately, with the discussion starting within two hours of Helene’s announcement to the RCs and L4+ judges, and its messages coming from Johanna on January 14.

Judge Conduct Committee Membership and Selections

Some have raised the question of whether my change from leadership of the JCC had anything to do with this case. It didn’t. If you’re looking for proof here’s the cover letter, in its entirety, from my JCC application for the new term. I submitted it November 30:

I’m interested in continuing this work, and assisting the incoming chair for the sake of continuity, but I’d like to set a precedent of no chair serving for more than one term consecutively.

There’s a reason the internal investigations unit of every law enforcement agency is its highest-turnover unit. And I see a lot of parallels to the work of the JCC in that. The work involves routinely losing faith in those you trust, and on whose trust you personally depend. But the last year within the Committee has fully convinced me that its work is necessary with the Judge Program where it is today.

It also takes a toll. Handing off JCC leadership duties to Johanna was such a relief that it can best be described in an anecdote from my life outside of Magic. My “real world” job held a blood drive that week and for the first time in a long while the screening nurse didn’t ask me to sit down and relax first to bring my blood pressure down into the preferred range.

There’s also a question (not really raised publicly, but sure, let’s answer it proactively anyway) of whether this issue affected the JCC’s 2016 selections. Two of the suspended judges applied, so did their suspension unduly alter their chances? The short version is pretty simple: No. To expand a bit, I’m going to take you into the exciting work of selecting the JCC in a little more detail.

Since it seems to be a point of confusion for some, here are a few things you should know about how the JCC is selected. It doesn’t select its own members. The process is pretty mundane, and that’s intentional. Many people collaborate to make it happen. The work is stressful enough without needing to campaign for a position or worry about drama and interpersonal politics.

People apply. L4+ and (new this time!) RCs vote on a five-point scale. Five of the nine 2015 members were among the groups voting. Four of those five applied for the 2016 term. Three of those five remain on the JCC in 2016. In tabulating the votes, each person’s vote concerning themself is excluded from tabulation. I do some math on a spreadsheet and share it with the L4+ judges. 

We discuss it and arrive at a group that has some new folks, represents the program well, retains some continuity, considers diversity, and can hopefully make good decisions. Our members are publicly known and announced, and they’re available to discuss problems or questions. It’s not some shadowy cabal of conspirators. We’re just getting a pretty damn difficult job done the best we can.

The suspensions did not meaningfully change the selections for the 2016 term. But I’ve come to that understanding by examining the data in detail, so it’s only fair that I share my process with you. Here’s what I’ve found:

Based on the timestamps of the JCC selection votes, there is the potential for up to four of the thirteen votes cast by the RCs to have been affected by the suspensions. One of those four contacted me to explain that their vote was affected by the suspension. So I went back and re-did the math to compare both scenarios. Throwing out the post-suspension votes had no effect on the suspended judges’ absolute scores and no effect on their relative rankings among the other applicants, either.

Wrapping Up

So that’s the situation from my perspective. It’s not often that we go into this level of public detail into the process and decision making within the JCC, but this situation was significant and exceptional in several respects and it didn’t truly involve many decisions on the part of the JCC, either.

As I described in a few areas above, clearly we can do better. We need to communicate better on several levels. The relationship between the people who make these kinds of decisions and those who are tasked with communicating them could use some additional clarity. Some of these issues are already in the process of being worked out, but others are more complicated. This is an exercise in continuous improvement, and I don’t know that there will truly be a future point at which we can say the job is done.

I’m sure some of you reading this have more questions. The comments here are a fine place to ask those questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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