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.

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Points Interview: Nancy Maveety

Today’s Points Interview features Nancy Maveety, Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and author of the new book Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). At Tulane, she teaches courses in constitutional law, judicial decision-making, and her latest special topics class “Booze, Drugs and the Courts.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A cocktail-by-cocktail history of the Supreme Court and its decisions on alcohol and the Constitution. Eras of American drinking, in terms of practices and favorite potions, are superimposed on their corresponding time periods of the tenure of each chief justice in the Supreme Court’s history—with those chief justice eras looked at in terms of alcohol and the law.  

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

How both the social and personal behaviors and the decision making of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court reacted to as well as contributed to a (or to each) particular American “regime” of beverage alcohol’s restriction or enjoyment. Sometimes, restriction and enjoyment were simultaneous behaviors, and constitutional law was the vehicle for their uneasy coexistence in American life.

Alcohol and drug historians who are not U.S. courts or legal specialists might be surprised at how much rich material there is, with respect to “the Supreme Court bar.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 15.28.30

Nancy Maveety

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The fact that the culture of beverage alcohol intersected so neatly with the justices’ own drinking behaviors and preferences, as well as so often with the major issues in constitutional law, across the history of the Supreme Court.

For instance, it was just too perfect that at the same time that vodka really emerges in the American spirits pantheon, by the early 1960s or thereabouts, Chief Justice Earl Warren was ordering the vodka gimlet as his cocktail of choice (at the many lunches and banquets where his predilection is remembered and recorded).

Likewise, Supreme Court cases that raised questions about states’ regulations as to who could drink (legally), or who could work as a bartender, for instance, were among some of the major twentieth century decisions on gender discrimination and equal protection of the law under the Bill of Rights. The regulation of alcohol is a pretty frequent factual element of a lot of U.S. constitutional law—on major constitutional issues, to do with congressional commerce power, federalism, 1st Amendment freedom of speech, 4th Amendment privacy issues…the list goes on. Contemporary social attitudes toward alcohol don’t line up perfectly with Court rulings, of course, but many alcohol-related controversies are definitely products of their times.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I’d love to see more archival work on alcohol in American political and legal life—more investigation into the nexus between political organization and social transformation in the U.S. and bars, drinking, and liquor as both a commodity and a vice.

Personally, I hope to be able spend more time immersing myself in the archival record of cocktail origins and fashions, and their connection to famous political moments or periods in American social history. Similarly, I want to do more detective work on the cocktails of choice of each of the justices of the Supreme Court!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Ken Burns—as long as he also agrees to serialize the book for PBS!