Points Bookshelf: “Glass and Gavel” by Nancy Maveety

“Look, I like beer, okay? I like beer.”

If there is no other solace from the painful testimonies we heard from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh last September (and there is not), at least we have Matt Damon’s portrayal of the justice on Saturday Night Live.

(The Washington Post made this helpful mashup if your memory needs refreshing:)

With Kavanaugh’s declaration of his beverage of choice still fresh in our minds, Nancy Maveety couldn’t have chosen a better time to publish Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), which details the two-hundred-year-long relationship between alcohol and our highest court. This swift-moving, thoroughly-researched, and useful (it contains recipes!) analysis of the often-tempestuous relationship between alcohol and constitutional law is a useful addition to the canon, not only because its history is unique–to my knowledge this the first extensive history of the Supreme Court’s alcohol rulings–but its format is unique as well. By combining a summary of the Court’s rulings with insightful drinking biographies of the justices themselves, Maveety has crafted a story that shows how America’s alcohol laws have shifted over time, alongside revealing portraits of how our country’s drinking culture has evolved along with, or in spite of, the legal landscape. 

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Each of the fourteen chapters focuses on a single Court era, as defined by its sitting chief justice, and Glass and Gavel moves swiftly from the John Marshall Era (1801-1835) to the John Roberts Era of today (2005-current). We watch as justices debate the question of who should be held responsible if liquor is “taken to excess” (this was during the Fuller era, 1888-1910, and Justice Stephen J. Field argued that it was not the seller’s fault), to more modern questions of regulating out-of-state alcohol sales during the “Rehnquist Era of Neo-Temperance” (1986-2005). Major rulings are outlined, Prohibition dominates the middle part of the book, and, by gaining deeper insight into the justices’ own views on drinking, we watch the history of America’s relationship with alcohol unfold from the lofty position of the judicial bench. Glass and Gavel is the story of alcohol in American life and law, told through the lens of the Court’s chief cocktail.

For all its heavy subject matter–these are, after all, decisions about the legality of a substance that kills roughly 88,000 Americans annuallyGlass and Gavel is a lot of fun. The writing moves quickly; Maveety even bolds important words and phrases and italicizes her most trenchant sentences. There are brief conclusions at the end of every chapter, and recipes are included for several of the drinks she discusses. Each chapter also features a token cocktail, from quoit club punch in the early 1800s (a refreshing mix of brandy, madeira, lemons and ice, perfect for enjoying on humid summer days), to the dry martini of mid-century judicial soirees, to RBG’s current interest in Camparis. By emphasizing a token cocktail or liquor for each era, Glass and Gavel is part history and part pairing-guide. With a well-stocked bar and an experimental spirit, you could easily have a very fun reading party.

Screenshot 2019-03-27 15.12.56

Know what else would be fun? “Fajitas and frivolity” with Sandra Day O’Connor! (p. 255)

Maveety keeps her voice light, but this is a deeply-researched work. Glass and Gavel’s depth and time span are particularly illuminating right now, as laws around other drugs, including cannabis and nicotine, continue to change. The passage of the 21st Amendment means that it will take work to federally prohibit alcohol again, but booze’s constantly-varying levels of legality, as defined by the Supreme Court, show that few intoxicants are ever completely legally stable. We may not have rulings on its legality anymore, but there are still discussions to be had on drinking’s availability, implementation and effects; since the 1990s, the court has ruled on blood alcohol levels, drunk driving, state price controls, and advertising bans. As we move toward an era when greater numbers of people embrace the idea of legality for intoxicants like cannabis and psychedelics, Maveety is wise to remind us that many more questions must continually be answered–sometimes at our country’s highest court level–beyond whether a substance is simply legal or not.

Glass and Gavel was recently released, and unfortunately Maveety wasn’t able to include a discussion of Brett Kavanaugh’s public affection for beer. I look forward to an expanded version that analyzes how Kavanaugh’s beer-drinking ways are accepted (or not) on this Court by Roberts, the sober Hoosier, and RBG the gourmet. Until then, Glass and Gavel is an illuminating and light-hearted history that puts the cocktail in the courtroom and shows us precisely how legally-debatable America’s most beloved intoxicant truly is. 

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