The High(est) Court

In which we determine which federal court of appeals has the most game.

American regions are imprinted on the nation’s consciousness. They delineate allegiances, shared cultures, histories, dialects, even ways of thinking. Midwestern accents and Southern food have cultural resonance, even if the bounds of the regions that define them aren’t universally agreed upon.

Often, these groupings grow tribal. We feel affinity for the people from our neck of the woods because we see in them our shared experiences. People can and often do hold multiple geographical identities, each with their own means of expression and modes of kinship.

Many regions bubble up of their own accord. Others are created.

There are 11 U.S. circuit courts of appeals, plus the Federal District in DC, each with jurisdiction over a handful of states. It’s a sort of federalist dream, with the nation’s laws in a real sense molded by the states’ boundaries. Each circuit has developed an ideological reputation over the years, thanks to the leanings of its constituent states, but the groupings work to redraft traditional lines, often bringing together and transcending the politics we may associate with a given region.

Take, for instance, the Sixth Circuit, which stretches through the Great Lakes down into the Southeast. Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee are rarely lumped together, but their grouping matters, determining the way federal law is interpreted across this area. The gargantuan Ninth Circuit, sprawling across nine Western states and two territories and drawing together more than 60 million people, has been repeatedly criticized for a perceived liberal bent said to be at odds with its redder members, like, say, Alaska or Arizona.

In some sense, then, these new regions create a meaningful way of grouping states.

And if region informs one type of allegiance, sports inform another. College basketball links these two memberships more completely than almost any other game. Group allegiance is, if not inherently competitive, at least defined with eyes to the “other” — who’s in the group, and who’s out. Basketball, more than football, pits these teams and their attendant allegiances against one another.

This is the beauty of March Madness, the NCAA’s Division 1 basketball tournament. The automatic bid process forces geographical diversity, and the head-to-head bracketing creates competition. It’s a match made in heaven.

So: we have our categories — federal circuit courts — and our instrument — men’s college basketball.

If for no other reason than coincidence or boredom — and, really, bigger questions have been posed from less — we might ask: which is the highest court in the land?

Doing the math

Here are the ground rules: for each men’s tournament from 1985 (the year March Madness grew to 64 teams) to 2017, the schools moving to the Sweet Sixteen or further are awarded points based on how far they progressed in the competition. Losing in that round nets two points, and Elite Eight elimination is good for three. Teams that exit in the Final Four earn five points, while the national runner-up takes home seven. The champion is awarded a full 10. Under this system, the top 16 teams split 55 total points.

Those points get added to each state’s tally. Forgetting for a moment that this a meaningless exercise, there’s a reason not every school that makes the tournament earns points. Teams that progress to the Sweet Sixteen have already won two games, which isn’t insignificant. It’s an imperfect measure of a program’s quality in a given year, but even a team that lucks its way into a third-round appearance is worthy of some recognition.

The aggregated state totals are then grouped based on circuit court affiliation. While the state totals are highly uneven — North Carolina’s 238 points tower over the 2 Wyoming racked up, for example — the circuits actually help to balance these disparities. Every court, including D.C.’s, is represented.

And grouping in this way actually helps to blunt the effect a single successful state can have. To rise to the top, circuits needed to bundle states with winning schools — Pennsylvania and Connecticut earned a respectable 70 and 68 points, respectively, but stand almost alone in their small circuits.

The top court

In the end, it isn’t corn-fed Hoosiers or net-cutting Carolinians that come out on top. Our winner, folks, is the Sixth Circuit, home to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

The redder the better — darker red indicates more success.

As mentioned above, the states inside are strange bedfellows — Michigan and Tennessee seem in many ways almost opposites. What pulls the Sixth over the line is its consistency. The circuit has the highest average state score, at 88.75, and four schools that have won championships since 1985 (Louisville, Michigan, Kentucky, and Michigan St.)

As you might guess, North Carolina drags the Fourth Circuit to a second-place finish. That’s largely on the backs of UNC and Duke, responsible for eight championships, though University of Maryland’s 2002 title certainly helps. Unfortunately, first place remains out of reach for another year at least. A UNC victory in Monday’s final would take the circuit to 332 points, still a ways behind the Sixth’s 373.

* Not including Monday’s championship game

Should the Tar Heels lose, Gonzaga’s championship would be the first ever for a team from Washington state, and the first for a Ninth Circuit school since the University of Arizona won it all in 1997. On the whole, the Ninth has done well, comfortably landing in third. With nine states involved, however, you might expect better from the Far West.

And, in fact, when you break the scores down on a per-capita basis, the Ninth plummets to eighth or ninth place (more on this later). The true beneficiary of tying the success to population is the only non-numbered court: DC’s Federal Circuit.

With a smidge over 600,000 people, the District of Columbia has had outsized success in the tournament, thanks primarily to Georgetown (though dear old George Washington’s Sweet Sixteen loss in 1993 chips in a healthy 2 points).

What’s perhaps most remarkable is that the Sixth Circuit still finishes second in the per-capita standings, too. The region that finishes last with population factored in is the Fifth Circuit — Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The reason is simple: lots of people and not a lot of tournament success, with LSU’s loss in the 2006 Final Four the best recent showing.

Moving down the overall list, results become fairly predictable. The Tenth Circuit, buoyed by schools in Kansas and Oklahoma, ranks fourth. Close behind, the Seventh (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana) pulls in 172 points and the Connecticut-dominated Second gets 135. Without appearances in the later rounds of the tournament, year in and year out, it’s hard to go much higher.

Looking ahead

This year’s final points will be awarded tonight, when the University of North Carolina Tar Heels square off against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. In many ways, they’re opposites — UNC already has five NCAA championships, losing the title game last year, while this tournament marks Gonzaga’s first ever trip to the Final Four. The Tar Heels are a powerhouse in a conference packed to the gills with successful programs, while the Zags are mid-major titans, racking up win after win in those lonely Western fieldhouses with little on the national stage, thus far, to show for it.

Neither outcome will affect the overall rankings — UNC’s Fourth Circuit will remain in second, and Gonzaga’s Ninth will stay right behind. That’s not to say, of course, that this game isn’t crucial for both programs. UNC last won in 2009, with archrival Duke taking home two titles in the interim, and a Gonzaga championship would represent the program’s final apotheosis into the top tier.

But the only Circuit-related standing that could change tonight is in the per-capita column. There, a Gonzaga win would take the Ninth Circuit to eighth place, leapfrogging the underachieving Eighth Circuit.

That’s not a very exciting reason to watch, granted, but tonight represents the West’s first chance to even contest a title game in over a decade. To the degree that you, reader, identify as a Westerner, that might be significant. After all: there’s regional pride on the line.