Vol. 29 No. 5 (May 2019) pp. 57-58

GLASS AND GAVEL: THE U.S. SUPREME COURT AND ALCOHOL, by Nancy Maveety. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. 367pp. Hardcover $35.00. ISBN:  9781538111987.

Reviewed by Ryan C. Black, Department of Political Science, Michigan State University. Email:

When I first learned that Nancy Maveety was publishing a book about two topics near and dear to several of my vital organs – brain, heart, and liver (in no particular order) – I took two immediate and swift actions. First, I went on Amazon and preordered the book. Second, I volunteered to review the book for this publication. This was, quite frankly, to ensure that I had an “excuse” to read the book, and the book lived up to my high expectations. Although its title and cover art might lead one to believe otherwise, GLASS AND GAVEL represents a serious – yet still accessible – scholarly effort on the part of Maveety to unite several heretofore disparate strands of work. At roughly 300 pages of main text augmented with another 45 pages of endnotes, the book is a substantial piece of serious scholarship. GLASS AND GAVEL (and I promise this will be the only drink-related pun I subject you to) is equal parts legal anthology and social/cultural history with just a few – but nearly enough for this reviewer’s tastes – dashes of judicial biography. More on that later. As such, if you are in the market for either a comprehensive accounting of the Court’s alcohol-related jurisprudence or a smart and concise synthesis of the socio-cultural history of alcohol, this book is a must-read.

Maveety begins GLASS AND GAVEL by making a persuasive case for why one ought to take seriously the endeavor on which she is about to embark. Like much of the studies we pursue, part of her efforts are motivated by a gap in the literature, and this is an important oversight. As Maveerty writes of the relationship between America and alcohol, “Yet only fuzzily remembered or documented within that troubled romance is the entity of the U.S. Supreme Court. This is as grave an omission as the olive from the martini, for the court and its justices have been caught with glass as well as gavel in hand. Less flippantly put, the U.S. Supreme Court has regularly and frequently been at the center of the tricornered relationship between drinking, public life, and constitutional law and liberties” (p. 3). The structure of the book makes clear the extent of this regularity and frequency that Maveety references. GLASS AND GAVEL consists of 14 numbered chapters, each corresponding to the tenure of a Chief Justice. (Maveety condenses the Jay, Rutledge, and Ellsworth years into a prologue as the Court had not issued any alcohol-related opinions during these early years.) Not only is GLASS AND GAVEL impressive in its breadth – indeed, it covers 225+ years of American history – but it is equally noteworthy in depth of what Maveety skillfully covers within each chapter.

Each chapter provides readers with a brief account of drinking practices among the justices (with a particular focus on the Chief) on the Court during that period. Similarly, Maveety provides a thoughtful summary of alcohol use in political culture (e.g., the President) as well as society more broadly. The inclusion of this information came as a pleasant and very welcomed surprise to me. Maveety has canvassed and synthesized a wide array of lengthy studies on the topic (e.g., Daniel Okrent’s 500-page tome). The result is a number of great gems of trivia that I found myself flagging for future reference. For example, I learned that it was the large number of prohibition-related cases that gave birth to plea bargaining, which has, of course, evolved into an essential element of the criminal justice system. Third, each chapter of GLASS AND GAVEL provides a thorough description of all alcohol-related cases decided by the Court during the period – of which there are a surprisingly large number. As if all of this was not enough, Maveety also identifies a cocktail that she contends is most representative of each period. [*58]

Given all of the moving parts in each chapter, one logical question a would-be reader might ask is, “Does it work?” My answer to this question is “generally yes.” The chapters typically opened with material on the justices and society and then concluded with an extensive review of case law. I’m of somewhat mixed minds as to the usefulness of such a thorough review. On the one hand, if you need a one-stop shop for cases, GLASS AND GAVEL is a convenient (and well-indexed) place to turn. On the other hand, do you really need this? Here I’m less convinced and would have probably preferred a bit more editorial discretion on Maveety’s part from separating out the wheat from the chaff (especially since the justices receiving comparatively shorting shrift). In any event, a typical chapter clocks in at only 19 or so pages, so even if you find yourself not fully appreciating the nuances of yet another taxation case during the Waite Court, you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Furthermore, the writing itself is exceptionally strong in both its engagement and clarity; it also, from time to time, even crosses the threshold into the territory of being funny.

For all that it does I’m reluctant to suggest that I was left wanting more, but, as I alluded to earlier in this review, I must confess to this being true. In particular, for a book that is about the Supreme Court, I was surprised not to see the justices featured as prominently – and exhaustively – as were the decisions they rendered. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was really hoping for more insight into who exactly drank what? To be sure, we get a good sense of the drink preferences of each Chief Justice featured, but in an institution where the Chief is merely said to be “first among equals,” I was hoping for a more thorough probing of the other justices and, in particular, those from the last half-century or so. Maveety even teases us when she notes, almost in passing, that Peppers and Cushman’s (2015) OF COURTIERS AND KINGS “contains multiple references to drinking, cocktail parties, and... to the general culture of alcohol in and around the Supreme Court over the course of the mid-to-late twentieth century” (p. 286). Why these references weren’t mined with the same thoroughness that Maveety applied to other subjects in the book is unclear and detracts just a bit from an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable book.

Ultimately there is so much more to like about GLASS AND GAVEL than the small critiques I have identified here. The book masterfully balances between being a substantial piece of legal scholarship while simultaneously being engaging and accessible to readers. Certainly, it should be read and enjoyed by those who study the Supreme Court or federal judiciary more generally. And despite focusing on a single subject matter, I do think there’s a potential place for it in the classroom. To be sure, it’s not going to be good for a general undergraduate constitutional law class, but I could see it being part of a reading list for a more advanced/specialized “topics in law” course that included alcohol-related law in its scope. One such class could examine the law of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms (i.e., “ATF law”). Another might be one focusing on the law of “sin,” and could take up alcohol along with a host of other areas that tend to generate interesting case law and are likely to juice up student enrollment.


Okrent, Daniel. 2010. LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION. New York: Scribner.

Peppers, Todd C. and Clare Cushman, eds. 2015. OF COURTIERS AND KINGS: MORE STORIES OF SUPREME COURT LAW CLERKS AND THEIR JUSTICES. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

© Copyright 2019 by author, Ryan C. Black.