With autumn comes fantasy leagues, all night "draft picks" and clinical-like research on key players' stats. The competitive- minded place bets on everything -- sports teams, races and even election results.
Why not place odds on U.S. Supreme Court verdicts?
George Mason University law school graduate Josh Blackman, 26, found himself asking this very question while tracking last year's campaign finance case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The idea really began last year during the [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] case," Blackman said. "A friend ... was like, 'What do you think the odds are on this case?' ... I took that idea and ran with it."
Arguments on the case began in March 2009. By November, Blackman created the FantasySCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) league, an online game at www.fantasyscotus.net where constitutional law wonks predict how each of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices will vote on cases during the year-long session.
"I put it up online and within 24 hours we had about 1,000 people signed up," Blackman said.
Now in its second season, more than 5,000 competitors have signed up to play FantasySCOTUS, which gaveled into session Oct. 4.
Competitors in the fantasy league predict whether a justice will vote to affirm, reverse to the lower court or recuse themselves from a case. Ten points are awarded for each correct answer.
The player with the top score is awarded the "Golden Gavel" trophy and is named that season's Chief Justice of FantasySCOTUS. Last year's winner, Justin Donoho, has just finished a clerkship with a justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit. Among the 5,000 competitors he beat were former U.S. Supreme Court clerks and other legal heavy-hitters.
"I'm not going to disclose names, but you'd be surprised at some of the big names who play," Blackman said.
Players compete for bragging rights and badges of honor, such as the "Con Law" and "Criminal Law" badges. For those who become experts on a specific justice, there is the "Chief" badge (Chief Justice John G. Roberts), the "Neck Doily" badge (Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), the "Rookie" badge (Associate Justice Elena Kagan) and so on.
No one wants to get the "Borked" badge, Blackman said, which is awarded to competitors with the fewest correct predictions. The badge is named for Robert Bork, a U.S. Supreme Court nomination made by former President Ronald Reagan who was rejected by the U.S. Senate.
Taking it to the classroom
The quick rise to success led Blackman and fellow players to create a game-program for high school students, with the hope it will raise awareness for constitutional law in classrooms across the nation.
"We just launched the program a couple of weeks ago," said Adam Aft, 26, a fellow Mason law grad and 2002 alumnus of West Springfield High School. Aft, Blackman and others have helped create the Harlan Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., named after Justice John M. Harlan (1833-1911), who Blackman called "a deep proponent of constitutional education."
Aft, a fantasy football fan, said, "I really see -- inside the Beltway and Fairfax County in particular -- a real interest in this."
The Harlan Institute has created lesson plans on five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Snyder v. Phelps, which tackles the debate between free verses hate speech brought on by protesters outside of a military service member's funeral, and Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which will decide whether restricting the sale of violent video games is a free speech violation.
"It combines all the appeals of fantasy sports, but it's educational," Blackman said. "It's absolutely free. That was our goal starting out."
Teachers are given lesson plans to help teach cases, and while students predict the outcome of the trial, they also can blog about the cases and write summaries on the sides taken.
The program has drawn the attention of retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wants to partner it with her iCivics program, a web-based program aimed at teaching middle school students about community and democracy, Blackman said.
"The kids really relate to the way we approach it, because it's cases in the news," he said.
Fellow Mason law grad Mattias Caro, 30 of Great Falls, who was a history teacher, serves on the Harlan Institutes Teacher Advisory Network for Fairfax County.
"Right now, where we have so much demand with Standards of Learning ... we're giving them something set. They don't have to do lesson planning. They can just pick up the ball running," Caro said. "This is trying to get the kids really into learning about the Supreme Court. When you teach the Supreme Court, it's really in a very limited way [focusing on past cases]. They may learn about Dred Scott ... or even Roe v. Wade. It's a very distant thing to them; but it shouldn't be.
"We're really trying to get them to see both sides of these issues. As a teacher that's something you're trying to build up to."
Caro said he has been surprised by the feedback so far, especially the students' enthusiasm for studying the Supreme Court this way. Fifty schools in the nation already have signed up to play. Of those, one is in Virginia, in the Virginia Beach area, Aft said.
For now, the Harlan Institute is aiming to expand its base among educators by visiting classrooms and promoting the program.
"This isn't just for the students who are the future policy wonks," Caro said.
-Play FantasySCOTUS at www.fantasySCOTUS.org
-Learn more about the Harlan Institute at www.harlaninstitute.org