This isn't about being judgmental. ("That guy has a 747 ego and tricycle ability.")
Nor has it anything to do with our court system. ("And how do you find, Madam Foreman?" "Your Honor, we find the defendant more guilty than not.")
Nor does it have anything to do with sports and certainly not the Olympics.
I'm talking about judging contests, and though the end result won't be as petty as the first example, nor as life-shaking as a jury's conclusion, it does have an impact on people's lives, both for the judge and for those being judged. Trouble is, there often aren't laws to guide judges, though rules of any particular contest will apply.
Most beautiful? Cutest? Well, who's idea of beauty or cuteness?
Best pickles? What if these are all dill and you only like sweet?
I'm a published writer, and, as such, have been called on to judge writing contests I have previously won, or where submissions are a type of writing where I have had experience and publishing success. Therefore I am, at least to a degree, a qualified judge. (That still doesn't eliminate the dill/sweet pickle problem unless the contest is very narrowly described.)
As a judge, I have noticed some trends over the years.
More entrants follow the rules. Used to be easy to disqualify a number of entries where the author bypassed submission guidelines. This still happens, but not as frequently.
More writers also pay attention to general rules for good writing--like using few passive verbs, involving all five senses, and showing instead of telling.
Why has this happened? I think it's because writers realize that, though the number of readers for many types of fiction and some non-fiction has declined in recent years, the number of people writing and publishing books (whether traditionally or "do it yourself") has increased dramatically. Why get aced out of your chosen field simply because you didn't work hard enough on producing a correct/captivating sentences?
So, faced by a stack of very good manuscripts, what's an honest judge to do? For one thing, art and emotion become more important. "Message?" Yes. Also suspense, and appealing characters the reader cares about. How about a plot that can be easily understood and followed. It's back to the old cliche--"I didn't want to put it down."
The job of judging has--in the writing field as well as so many others in our complex society--become more demanding on time and thought. It calls on everything previously learned in our professions and our lives.
A time-consuming chore? Oh, yes. But exciting--like mining and finding gems or gold. Also tough almost to the point of heartbreak when a judge thinks about what the results of his or her decisions will mean in the lives of several earnest writers.
Still, I am honored when I am chosen for the job.