South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203; 107 S. Ct. 1793; 97 L. Ed. 2d 171 (1987)

South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203; 107 S. Ct. 1793; 97 L. Ed. 2d 171 (1987)

Facts—Congress adopted the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment of 1984 withholding a portion of federal highway construction funds to states that did not raise their minimum drinking age to 21. South Dakota, which permitted those 19 years of age and older to purchase beer with up to 3.2 percent alcohol, sought an injunction claiming that the law exceeded congressional powers under the spending clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 1) and violated the Twenty-first Amendment, reserving state powers over alcohol. The U.S. District Court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the state challenge.

Question—Does the National Minimum Drinking Age Amendment of 1984 exceed federal powers under the spending clause or the Twenty-first Amendment?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (7–1). Federal powers under the spending clause are limited. Such powers must meet four criteria. They must be exercised in pursuit of “the general welfare.” Congress must state its intentions un- ambiguously. Congressional regulations must be related to the programs they finance, and such congressional stipulations must not violate specific constitutional prohibitions. Rehnquist found all four conditions to be present. Constitutional bars to direct regulation of activity, like the consumption of alcohol, are “less exacting than those on its authority to regulate indirectly.” In this case, the federal inducement, 5 percent of highway construction funds otherwise available, offers “relatively mild encouragement to the States to enact higher minimum drinking ages” and is “a valid use of the spending power.”

J. Brennan and J. O’Connor authored dissents. Brennan’s brief dissent argues that states retain power to regulate alcohol under the Twenty-first Amendment. O’Connor agrees with the criteria Rehnquist established for measuring exercises of the spending clause but did not find the establishment of a minimum drinking age to be “sufficiently related to interstate highway construction” (as opposed to safety) to justify the federal inducement offered in this case.

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