HOUSTON – In many ways, it’s a fantasy league like any other, with players obsessing over mounds of data and minutia, teams sporting a variety of colorful names like “RISK It for the Biscuit” and projections that are bound to be way off.
But in this fantasy league, it’s not the NFL’s Calvin Johnson or Peyton Manning who are the stars but a group known for its skills not on the playing field but in the courtroom: the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In FantasySCOTUS, participants try to predict how the justices will vote in each of the cases that come before the high court during its term, which runs from October to late June or early July.
Josh Blackman, a Houston law professor who started the online game more than four years ago, said the site is a fun way of understanding an institution that for many people remains mysterious and far removed from daily life.
“People want to know what are they doing, and this is just one way of kind of peeling back the curtain,” said Blackman, who teaches at South Texas College of Law.
FantasySCOTUS started “almost like a joke,” said the 29-year-old Blackman.
The idea came in 2009 when he kidded with a friend about what the betting odds would be in Las Vegas over the then pending ruling from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which lifted many restrictions on corporate spending in political elections.
Blackman and another person built the site in a month and launched it in November 2009. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people had signed up. Today, the site has more than 20,000 participants.
While most players tend to be lawyers or law students, the site also has political scientists and engineers as well as other professions.
Blackman said the site’s best players are 75 to 80 percent accurate.
A correct guess on a justice’s vote to either affirm or reverse a case earns 10 points. Correctly guessing how all nine justices vote earns a 100 point bonus. The high court votes on about 80 cases per year.
The winner each season of FantasySCOTUS earns the title of “chief justice” and a golden gavel with their name inscribed on it. While there are no cash prizes, there are “lots of bragging rights,” Blackman said.
Jacob Berlove, 30, of New York City, has been the holder of those bragging rights for three years running.
What makes Berlove’s accomplishment more impressive is that he never went to law school. Berlove, who has also never played fantasy football, currently works in medical billing. But he has been interested in the high court since elementary school.
“I’m certainly never going to sit on the Supreme Court. The best I can do is show that I perhaps understand the way the justices are operating,” he said.
But Berlove isn’t playing this season, saying the lack of a cash prize has made it difficult to devote so much time to the game.
Blackman said he is considering adding a cash prize next year.
Kathleen Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, declined to comment about the fantasy league.
Blackman said he has heard that the justices are aware of his website.
FantasySCOTUS has also led to the creation of the Harlan Institute, a nonprofit Blackman started that’s established a version of site that is used as a teaching tool in high schools across the country.
Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York City, said while the idea of the fantasy league might sound silly at first, he believes it can be a good way to educate the public about the high court. A 2012 survey by the FindLaw.com legal information website found that nearly two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name a single member of the Supreme Court.
“It makes people aware of the court and when you become aware of the Supreme Court, you become aware of your rights as an American and that is very, very important and that is always to the good,” said Sabino, who teaches business and constitutional law.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70