2037: Supreme Court Bracket

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Supreme Court Bracket
My bracket was busted in the first round; I had Massachusetts v. Connecticut in the final, probably in a case over who gets to annex Rhode Island.
Title text: My bracket was busted in the first round; I had Massachusetts v. Connecticut in the final, probably in a case over who gets to annex Rhode Island.


The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest federal court of the United States. A tournament bracket is a tree diagram that represents the series of games played during a knockout tournament. US Supreme Court cases are typically titled as Petitioner versus Respondent. To spoof this, Randall has put sixteen famous Supreme Court cases into a tournament bracket, as though they were games in the first round of a single-elimination tournament, and that the winners of the 16 listed court cases will somehow file against each other and then again until the final winner is selected. This is similar to college basketball's March Madness, complete with a ranking bracket. "Sweet 16" in the context of a tournament refers to the stage in a tournament where 16 competitors remain. This comic's concept is thus a word play on "court" (court of law v. basketball court). The phrase "Supreme Court Bracket" also sounds similar to "Supreme Court Docket", which is the official schedule of cases that the Supreme Court will adjudicate (as all of these cases have been).

The cases are:

Marbury v. Madison (winner), 1803[edit]

The case Marbury v. Madison declared a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, thus preventing several late-term appointments by outgoing President John Adams from being seated under incoming President Thomas Jefferson. More importantly, the ruling established the principle of judicial review by which the Supreme Court can overturn, on the basis of unconstitutionality, laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. For this reason it is considered the single most important decision in American constitutional law.

McCulloch (winner) v. Maryland, 1819[edit]

The case McCulloch v. Maryland established a broad interpretation of the "necessary and proper" clause, specifically finding that Congress could incorporate a Bank of the United States because the purpose was to help carry out Congress' explicit powers under Article I, section 8.

Gibbons (winner) v. Ogden, 1824[edit]

The case Gibbons v. Ogden established that interstate commerce is regulated by the U.S. Congress according to the U.S. Constitution, that interstate navigation is fundamental to interstate commerce, and that therefore the power to regulate interstate navigation in this way rests with the U.S. Congress, not with any state legislature.

On 01 March 1824, the US Supreme Court decided in favor of Thomas Gibbons in his appeal of a case brought against him by Aaron Ogden in an attempt to prevent Gibbons from operating steamboats to transport goods and passengers between New York City, New York and Elizabethtown, New Jersey. The US Supreme Court decision reversed a prior injunction against Gibbons issued by a New York State court deciding that Ogden held exclusive navigational rights by way of having licensed them from two men to whom the New York State Legislature had granted the navigation rights in several acts between 1798 and 1807.

Near (winner) v. Minnesota, Jan 30, 1930 – Jun 1, 1931[edit]

The case Near v. Minnesota is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision that found that prior restraints on publication violate freedom of the press as protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a principle that was applied to free speech generally in subsequent jurisprudence. The Court ruled that a Minnesota law that targeted publishers of "malicious" or "scandalous" newspapers violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Noteworthy it was later a key precedent in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), in which the court ruled against the Nixon administration's attempt to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers.

NLRB (winner) v. Jones & Laughlin, 1937[edit]

National Labor Relations Board v Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation was a US labor law case. It declared that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was constitutional. It effectively preserved the New Deal, which was being pursued by US President Roosevelt in reaction to the Great Depression. Previous Supreme Court cases, unlike NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin, had invalidated New Deal statutes.

Brown (winner) v. Board of Education, Dec 9, 1952 – May 17, 1954[edit]

The case Brown v. Board of Education the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. It stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

This ruling paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. However, the decision did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court's second decision in Brown II only ordered states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."

Gideon (winner) v. Wainwright, 1963[edit]

In the case Gideon v. Wainwright the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states are required under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide an attorney or lawyer to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own attorneys.

Griswold (winner) v. Connecticut, 1965[edit]

In the case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Court ruled that a statute barring birth control to prevent pregnancy, also known as contraception, was unconstitutional, at least in its application to married couples, as there was an implicit right to privacy in the "penumbras" and "emanations" of other constitutional provisions. This ruling was used as precedent in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which extended the right to unmarried couples, and in Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas (see below).

Miranda (winner) v. Arizona, 1966[edit]

In Miranda v. Arizona, it was ruled that inculpatory and exculpatory statements would not be accepted in court if a defendant was not informed of their rights under the Fifth Amendment. The "Miranda Rights" warning ("You have the right to remain silent", etc.) is now used across the US.

Loving (winner) v. Virginia, April 10, 1967 - June 12, 1967[edit]

In Loving v. Virginia the Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and were struck down. This decision was well ahead of public opinion; a Gallup poll (cited by Think Progress) conducted the following year showed only 20% in favor. This case was cited as precedent in Obergefell v. Hodges, listed below.

Roe (winner) v. Wade, January 22, 1973[edit]

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to privacy, balanced against the state's interest in limiting abortions, allowed women to undergo abortions in the first and second trimesters and allowed states the right to forbid third-trimester abortions.

It was overruled by Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in 2022, allowing states the right to regulate abortion throughout all of pregnancy.

United States (winner) v. Nixon, July 8, 1974 - July 24, 1974[edit]

In United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that then-President Richard Nixon's refusal to hand over certain tape recordings during his impeachment process was unconstitutional. This case placed limits on the power of executive privilege.

Bush (winner) v. Gore, December 12, 2000[edit]

In Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court decided the highly contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, arguing in a 5-4 decision that the recount required by Florida state law could not be carried out before the December 12 deadline required by the United States Code. As such, the statewide recount was stopped, and the now-official initial count (which favored Bush) propelled Bush to the presidency.

Lawrence (winner) v. Texas, June 26, 2003[edit]

Lawrence v. Texas ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional, making same-sex sexual activity legal in all US states and territories. It explicitly overturned another Supreme Court decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, a case which had previously ruled such laws to be constitutional.

Massachusetts (winner) v. EPA, April 2, 2007[edit]

In Massachusetts v. EPA, Massachusetts and 11 other states sued the EPA for not regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, saying that contrary to the claims of the EPA at that point in time, greenhouse gases are pollutants. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioners, forcing the EPA to start placing regulations on greenhouse gases.

Obergefell (winner) v. Hodges, June 26, 2015[edit]

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the right to marriage is protected for same-sex couples by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Sweet 16[edit]

With the results given above, the "Sweet 16" of the bracket given would be as follows:

  • Madison v. McCulloch
  • Gibbons v. Near
  • NLRB v. Brown
  • Gideon v. Griswold
  • Miranda v. Loving
  • Roe v. United States
  • Bush v. Lawrence
  • Massachusetts v. Obergefell

The title text refers to a practice of filling out a March Madness bracket, predicting a winner for each game up to the championship. A bracket is "busted" when the result of a game is not as predicted; because future matchups depend on previous results, the whole bracket is worthless at that point. Randall "had Massachusetts v. Connecticut in the final", predicting both parties would win all previous rounds and advance to the final game/case. Because Connecticut lost its first-round case to Griswold, his bracket is busted in the first round.

In the second part of the title text, Randall writes: "I had Massachusetts v. Connecticut in the final, probably in a case over who gets to annex Rhode Island." In fact, there actually was a Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. Connecticut (summary at Justia.com, full text at Google Scholar) dealing with water rights on the Connecticut River, which flows between the two states.

Rhode Island is a smaller state that borders both Massachusetts and Connecticut (and no other state), hence the joke about "who gets to annex Rhode Island."

In an actual March Madness bracket, "Massachusetts" and "Connecticut" refer to the basketball teams from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut. So it is possible that a "Massachusetts v. Connecticut" matchup could occur in the basketball championship as well.

Continued Brackets[edit]

Occasionally, cases with the same names (if not the same defendants) have occurred in the United States.

  • Roe v. United States: A 1961 5th Circuit case. The judge initially ruled against Roe, but upon appeal in 1963, the judge ruled for Roe, and thus Roe will advance to the next round.
  • Bush v. Lawrence: A 2013 Virginia case. The judge ruled against Bush, but did partially grant one of the three motions. In any case, Lawrence will advance to the next round.
  • NLRB v. Brown: A 1965 Supreme Court case. The court ruled against the NLRB, and thus Brown will advance to the next round.

Thus, the Elite 8 (so far) will be as follows:

  • TBD v. TBD
  • Brown v. TBD
  • TBD v. Roe
  • Lawrence v. TBD


[A tournament bracket tree is shown with 16 participants each on the left and right side. From both sides toward the middle the brackets reduce to eight, then four, two, and one line where the latter join to a rectangle in the middle.]
[Left side:]
Marbury - Madison
McCulloch - Maryland
Gibbons - Ogden
Near - Minnesota
NLRB - Jones & Laughlin
Brown - Board of Education
Gideon - Wainwright
Griswold - Connecticut
[Right side:]
Miranda - Arizona
Loving - Virginia
Roe - Wade
United States - Nixon
Bush - Gore
Lawrence - Texas
Massachusetts - EPA
Obergefell - Hodges
[Caption below the frame:]
Now that we've finished the round of 32, the Supreme Court will be moving on to the Sweet 16.

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Came here for insight, only to discover this is tomorrow's comic, I'm viewing Friday's comic on Thursday after midnight. D'oh! Damn, seeing a comic early and I can't provide or contribute to the explanation, LOL! I realize the bracket and "Sweet 16" are sports things, I think football and/or basketball, and I spotted the famous name Roe vs. Wade, so seems like court cases, but that's it. Looking forward to people explaining the smaller jokes (I spotted "Loving" and "Virginia", and I feel like I recall their license plates say "Virginia Is For Lovers" I think, I expect something there). NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:58, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

Protip: Thursday after midnight is Friday! Nonetheless this comic was released at 0:00 EDT meaning it was still Thursday at time zones westwards. --Dgbrt (talk) 07:03, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
Protip: While technically true that after midnight is the next day, you'll find that anybody who stays awake past midnight, especially people who habitually do so, don't consider the day to have changed until they've gone to sleep and woken up. :) Since the majority of the time, the new XKCD is posted several hours later - I suspect 8am in Randall's / my time zone (I don't know, I've never been awake for it) - I find this is actually a valid point. It was available when night owls like me and Randall were still awake for Thursday, and when it even technically WAS still Thursday for the rest of the continent. Also, pointing this out is what most people call nitpicking, making the effort to make a pointless point, to declare something everybody knows already. It's a bad thing. NiceGuy1 (talk) 12:38, 31 August 2018 (UTC)
I got here at like 9:10 Pacific time and the comic was already up; normally I have to wait until like 1 AM before Randall posts it/you guys auto-mirror it. 08:23, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
The pages here are created automatically less than two minutes after the original was published on xkcd. Today, like some others in the recent past, this happened at 4:01 UTC (or GMT - the server time) which corresponds to 0:01 EDT (Randall time) and 21:01 PDT (the day before at your time.) The weekday is defined by Randall's time zone - US citizens should know about the shift from east to west. --Dgbrt (talk) 12:01, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

Errm. You can go back to the previous comic if you hit the [<Prev] button just above the current one. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Do you have a point? Who are you talking to? I suspect it's me, in which case you seemed to have missed something somewhere. NiceGuy1 (talk) 12:38, 31 August 2018 (UTC)

I agree that this is a sports reference, but can someone also include some sort of note about the title? I think that the "Supreme COURT" is referring to a basketball COURT, connected to how brackets like this are used in basketball like with March Madness. B. A. Beder (talk) 05:50, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

No, I'm pretty sure it's titled Supreme Court Bracket because the bracket consists of cases in which the Supreme Court of the United States made the rulings. 10:35, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
Why not both? 18:49, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
There is an actual basketball court in the Supreme Court building: https://www.si.com/nba/2018/07/25/supreme-court-building-basketball-court Tplaza64 (talk) 00:03, 25 August 2018 (UTC)
This is clearly both, combining "Basketball Court" with "Supreme Court". This crossover is the very basis of this comic's joke. NiceGuy1 (talk) 12:38, 31 August 2018 (UTC)

Well, how would the tournament turn out? We know who won the cases, so who's the king of the US legal system? -- 06:41, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

Many participants fail to reappear for the round 2, so not much progress yet. 13:24, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
I think it would be interesting if someone who knows a little more about the US legal system could write some short fanfic pieces about each of the cases later in the bracket. Maybe write each participant as if they were actually individuals, and try to come up with a reason for each case that's kind of consistent with their previously shown personalities. In cases like NLRB v Brown (mentioned below), you could just link to the case or give a short dramatised summary. For cases that haven't happened in reality, post a short piece describing the case presented, and let people vote on the outcome (as I believe was previously done for another comic about brackets, on Twitter or something I think?). I'd love to see how it went. -- Angel (talk) 15:38, 25 August 2018 (UTC)

Moral of the story: If you are the respondent in a landmark case, you might as well give up. --Troy0 (talk) 07:53, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

I noticed that as well. Do most "landmark" cases go to the plaintiff or is this just an outlier sample? 08:23, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
But Marbury actually won the case, the court was unable to deliver the ruling 09:42, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
"Marbury won"? Not according to the unanimous 4-0 ruling AGAINST Marbury. 20:20, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
As I see it (IANAL), the plaintiff goal in the Supreme Court usually is to change something (overrule a previous court decision, repeal a law), while the respondent typically fights to keep things the same. If the plaintiff loses, no changes are made. If nobody sees any changes in the country, why the case would be a landmark? Only when both outcomes change things for many people, like in the Dred Scott case, the respondent win makes a landmark. 13:24, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

I think this comic is unique because the comic references real life events without throwing in any fake events for comic effect. Usually the comic would have some imaginary events included. I guess just the idea that winners of Supreme Court cases are going to come back to the court and compete against each other is comical enough. Rtanenbaum (talk) 15:42, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

Adding an image

I created an image showing the winners superimposed on the original comic so you can see who is due to "play" each other next. Is there any way to upload the file? the image is this: http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/Special:UploadStash/thumb/15zj3hymeul4.6wctza.13964.png/600px-15zj3hymeul4.6wctza.13964.png Mrdownes (talk) 11:27, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

In general we don't need such an image because it doesn't explain much and the winners are already highlighted at the explanation. This Wiki isn't a picture book. Nevertheless check the menu and you will find the entry "Upload file". --Dgbrt (talk) 12:09, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
I found it helpful in order to see who would play who in the next round. I couldn't upload the image because it said I didn't have permission to create a page. -- Mrdownes (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Sorry, I didn't want to offend you. Even I get a stupid error message when clicking your link above. Nevertheless you only have to do a few edits or comments here until you automatically granted the rights for uploading files. So you are welcome to participate, if it is helpful or not will be decided by the community not only me or other admins. I've stated my opinion but that's only me. There is no censorship here. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:53, 27 August 2018 (UTC)
On the contrary, I must strongly disagree. Such an image would be so helpful and informative that it should actually be considered a mandatory addition, that this article is incomplete without such an image (or some other representation of this). As it stands, anyone wanting to know about Round 2 would have to go back and forth between the comic and the explanation multiple times, to see which cases are matched together and to see who won those cases. And this wouldn't work for the entire round, as there's a limit to how many cases someone can do this for only in our minds, we'd have to write it down. Might as well have it written down once and include it for everybody.NiceGuy1 (talk) 12:38, 31 August 2018 (UTC)
I think that updated bracket image would be fun to see regardless. Please do post it. Wisnij (talk) 19:08, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

The Brown won the NLRB v Brown match in round 2. (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/380/278/) - 15:19, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

Are there any other possible matchups that were actual cases in the same way? Someone already mentioned Massachusetts v Connecticut. How would you fill in the bracket to get the maximum number of real cases? -- Angel (talk) 15:38, 25 August 2018 (UTC)

Just wanted to thank all you folks for the explanation!  I couldn't make head or tail of this comic…  (Comes of being a non-USian, I guess.  Even after reading this page, I only recognised two of those cases.  xkcd is usually pretty universal — within the geek world, anyway — and US-specific ones like this are pretty puzzling to the rest of us.)  Cheers! — Gidds (talk) 23:56, 24 August 2018 (UTC)

The joke here is simply that, while court cases are competitions, the winner of a case does not challenge the winner of another case (unlike sports tournaments). It's a juxtaposition joke, made funnier by the fact that "court" is used in sports as well. 00:09, 25 August 2018 (UTC)

I just realized that the part of the explanation about the title text is not entirely correct. It mentions that a bracket is busted when a matchup does not have the predicted result, but I think it needs to point out the fact that it's related to any matchup that includes the team you picked to win the bracket instead of just any matchup in the bracket. In summary, if the team you picked to make it past the bracket loses a matchup, you then have no chance of a correct pick for any team from that bracket in later matchups - hence that bracket is busted. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 04:04, 26 August 2018 (UTC)

Just as tables cause readability issues, semantic use of italics can cause issues. Specifically, it is not safe to assume that screen reading software will distinguish italicized content such that a blind person will be aware which side won the case in the comic description. It is safe only to explicity indicate the winner through text. Thisisnotatest (talk) 07:01, 26 August 2018 (UTC)

The headers were no headers but just links with the winner in bold. I changed it to headers (which are already bold) and the link in the text below. No links in headers is a common wiki style. And because the header is bold I switched to italics. And as now together with the word winner in parentheses it looks fine, doesn't it? --Dgbrt (talk) 14:47, 27 August 2018 (UTC)

Random human:Did you know there's a basketball court above the supreme court? The highest court in the land... Is this a basketball match ending with finalists playing in that basketball court? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Was already mentioned above. While the Supreme Court is the highest court in the US, the basketball court in the same building is one floor above the actual courtroom. Thus it may be literally "the highest court in the land..." (Washington DC). --Dgbrt (talk) 13:27, 27 August 2018 (UTC)

I think there's more to this than the current description suggests. These cases are precedents which all currently exist alongside each other but which could, theoretically (but in the light of recent appointments, very possibly) be used to overrule each other in some way. If, as is widely feared, Roe v. Wade were to be overturned it would not be overturned in a vacuum but by a judgement based on another legal precedent. The point being made therefore is not that the claimants themselves are in competition (as the description notes, many are dead) but that the cases themselves are as precedents, none of which has any greater legal authority than any other. My knowledge of the minutiae of the cases themselves is not up to analysing whether there's particular reasoning behind the choices of which cases are in which brackets, but I'm sure there is insight and irony hidden here for someone with a better background in the law to uncover - lawyers needed! 17:57, 28 August 2018 (UTC)

I'm not a lawyer but simple logic tells me that you are over-interpreting the comic. When reading the still not complete explanation you can see the cases are ordered chronological. This means the cases at the nearby brackets are only connected within a small time frame. As one example look at the bracket Bush v. Gore (2000 Presidential election) and Lawrence v. Texas (sodomy laws, same-sex sexual activity); I can't see any further meanings at that bracket. --Dgbrt (talk) 21:41, 28 August 2018 (UTC)

I've added in the last explanations for the court cases; the description in the "incomplete" template would seem to suggest that said template should be removed. Do y'all concur? 05:03, 23 October 2018 (UTC)

Thanks for your work. I've removed the incomplete tag. --Dgbrt (talk) 19:23, 23 October 2018 (UTC)

Is it worth mentioning that Row v Wade is not the binding precedent on abortion laws anymore (and hasn't been since Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992)? To the best of my knowledge, its the only case in the bracket that is no longer precedent.14:05, 20 December 2018 (UTC)

It's 2022 and Roe v Wade is not the binding precedent for a wholly different reason (not sure if the explanation needs an update but it's certainly a development that was unforeseen when the comic was made...)

hi, i think this comic predicted the united states overturning roe vs wade.....