Since it launched in November 2009, FantasySCOTUS.net has attracted nearly 5,000 players and become the toast of the legal world. The brainchild of 25-year-old Josh Blackman, a graduate of George Mason University Law School and a teaching fellow at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law, Fantasy SCOTUS asks players to predict the outcome of Supreme Court decisions based on their knowledge of the Constitution, legal precedent, and the proclivities of various Supreme Court justices. The game is a cousin to the thriving world of prediction markets, where participants bet on real-world outcomes in everything from elections to the Academy Awards.
Associate Editor Damon Root spoke with Blackman about the site in July.
Q: How does the game work?
A: Players are predicting three things. First, the result. Will the Supreme Court affirm or reverse the lower court? Second, they predict the split. Will it be 5-4, 6-3, 7-2? Then they try to predict the votes of the individual justices.
For the most part, people impute into the Supreme Court their own personal views of how the law should turn out. So it’s not surprising that, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, people who were inclined to think the Chicago handgun ban was a bad thing were more likely to vote that the gun ban would be struck down.
Q: Tell me about the players.
A: The vast majority are law students. The rest are an amalgam of law professors, practicing attorneys, political junkies, people who just love the Court. The top few players—we’re still certifying the results—are hard-core. A couple of them are soon-to-be Supreme Court clerks. Most of them are appellate clerks. Current Supreme Court clerks can’t play, of course, but former Supreme Court clerks do play. And they have such an amazing grasp of every detail. We’ve been running a feature on AboveTheLaw.com called “Predictions of the 10th Justice,” where we rely on their predictions to predict how most cases will turn out. It wasn’t perfect, but for most of the big cases we got it right. I don’t know anywhere else on the Internet that provides how the Supreme Court will vote on different cases.
Q: You found out that teachers were using it in the classroom.
A: When I launched the league in November, I started receiving emails from high school teachers all over the country telling me, “Josh, this is a great tool. I’m using it in an A.P. government class or A.P. American history class, and my students just love it.” I thought, that’s a good idea; let me build a version of this for students. In December I co-founded a nonprofit called the Harlan Institute, named for Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson. The mission is to use the Internet and Web 2.0 and games like Fantasy SCOTUS to teach students about the Constitution and Supreme Court.
In addition, we’ve reached out to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Her organization iCivics exists to teach middle schoolers about the Constitution and Supreme Court. We’re working together to develop content.
Q: You’ve had your first cheating scandal.
A: The opinions usually come down at 10 in the morning. As soon as I found out that an opinion was handed down, I locked down the voting. One day I was held up, so there was a period of about 45 minutes before I locked down the voting, and in that time a number of people actually changed their votes to the correct result. I was shocked. There’s no cash prize; it’s just for bragging rights.