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Fantasy Supreme Court league challenges enthusiasts, educates students

By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, November 4, 2010; VA18

From sporting events to political races, predicting outcomes is a popular pastime.

So why not place odds on U.S. Supreme Court verdicts.

George Mason University graduate Josh Blackman, 26, found himself asking that question while tracking Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a campaign finance case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The idea really began last year during the case," said Blackman, who was a law student at the time and now clerks in the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania's western district. "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 had created the FantasySCOTUS league, an online game in which constitutional law wonks predict how each of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices will vote on cases before the court.

"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. The game is free and open to the public.

In addition, Blackman and several players have created a classroom-based version of the game for high school students, hoping it will raise students' awareness of constitutional law.

The 'Golden Gavel'

Competitors in the fantasy league predict if a justice will vote to affirm lower court decisions, reverse rulings or recuse themselves from a case. Ten points are awarded for each correct prediction.

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 of the U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit. Those he defeated included 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," said Blackman, who is a teaching fellow at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law.

Players compete for bragging rights and badges of honor, such as "Con Law" and "Criminal Law." For those who become experts on a specific justice, there is the "Chief" badge named after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the "Neck Doily" badge (for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and the "Rookie" badge (for Justice Elena Kagan).

Blackman said no one wants to get the "Borked" badge, which is awarded to competitors with the fewest correct predictions. The badge is named for Robert Bork, a U.S. Supreme Court nominee rejected by the Senate.

Taking it to the classroom

The success of FantasySCOTUS led Blackman and others to launch the classroom game.

"We just launched the program [online] a couple of weeks ago," said Adam Aft, 26, a fellow GMU law gradruate and 2002 alumnus of West Springfield High School.

Aft, Blackman and others have helped create the Harlan Institute, a nonprofit group named after Justice John M. Harlan (1833-1911), whom Blackman called "a deep proponent of constitutional education." The institute is dedicated to raising the awareness of legal justice in schools.

Aft, a fantasy football fan, said he sees a real interest in the high school program, especially in Fairfax County.

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 vs. hate speech, 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 them teach the cases, while students predict the outcomes of trials. They also can blog about the cases and write summaries of the arguments.

The program has drawn the attention of retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wants to form a partnership between it and her iCivics program, a Web-based program aimed at teaching middle-school students about community and democracy, Blackman said.

Fifty schools in the nation have signed up to play. For now, the Harlan Institute is aiming to expand its base among educators by visiting classrooms and promoting the program.

The feedback from students has been enthusiastic, said GMU law gradruate Mattias Caro, 30, of Great Falls, who serves on the Harlan Institutes Teacher Advisory Network for Fairfax County.

"This isn't just for the students who are the future policy wonks," Caro said.

The expanding classroom program might bring a new level of competition to the FantasySCOTUS league, Blackman said.

"The more people that play, and the more people who learn, the better," he said.

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