South Dakota v. Dole

483 U.S. 203 (1987)


Facts: Congress tried to use their spending power to get state governments to raise the drinking age to 21.  Congress passed a law that withheld a certain percentage of federal funds to any state with a drinking age lower than 21.  South Dakota had a drinking age of 19 for “low beer”.  South Dakota sues to force the federal government to pay the full amount of federal highway funds.  The district court and appellate court both found for the federal government.  South Dakota appeals.


Issue: Does Congress have the power under Article I and the Twenty-First Amendment to “encourage” South Dakota to raise their drinking age?


Rule: (1) Congress’s use of the spending power must be in pursuit of the “general welfare”.  (2) If Congress conditions the States’ receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously.  (3) Congress can’t place conditions on funding if those conditions are not related to “particular national projects or programs”.  (4) Congress cannot use its spending power to induce states to perform actions that are unconstitutional.


Analysis: The Court says that South Dakota doesn’t challenge the statute in question under any of the first three limitations above.  South Dakota only challenges the condition of federal funds on the basis that it’s an unconstitutional regulation of liquor sales under the Twenty-First Amendment.  The Court basically says that the standard for determining whether the Constitution places limits on conditional funding are not as strict as the standards for determining what Congress can do directly.  The Court finds it dispositive that South Dakota has the power to keep their law the same, even though it’s at some cost.


O’Connor disagrees that the condition is closely related to the purpose for which the funds are expended.  O’Connor says that underage drinking is not sufficiently closely related to interstate highway construction.


O’Connor also thinks that the law is an exercise of regulatory power rather than spending power.  O’Connor thinks that the Twenty-First Amendment gives this power solely to the states.


Conclusion: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed and the action of Congress is found to be constitutional.



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