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South Dakota v. Dole

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Brief Fact Summary.

South Dakota’s minimum drinking age was nineteen years old, and Congress passed a law establishing a national minimum drinking age of twenty-one years old.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There are four limitations to Congress’ spending power: (1) the exercise of the spending power must be in pursuit of the general welfare; (2) if Congress wants to condition states’ receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously, enabling states to make an informed choice; (3) conditions on federal grants may be illegitimate if they are unrelated to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs, and; (4) other constitutional provisions may independently bar the conditional grant of federal funds.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Here, however, Congress has directed only that a State desiring to establish a minimum drinking age lower than 21 lose a relatively small percentage of certain federal highway funds.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

South Dakota’s drinking age was 19, and Congress passed a law directing the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds from states that allowed people under the age of twenty-one to buy or publicly possess alcohol.

Issue.

Did Congress violate the Twenty-First Amendment by directing the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds from states that allowed people under the age of twenty-one to buy or publicly possess alcohol?

Held.

No, Congress did not violate the Twenty-First Amendment by directing the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds from states that allowed people under the age of twenty-one to buy or publicly possess alcohol

Dissent.

Justice O’Connor, disseniting

Justice O’Connor argues that the establishment of a minimum drinking age of twenty-one is not sufficiently related to interstate highway construction to justify the conditioning of funds for that purpose, implicating the third spending power limitation. She argues that the appropriate distinction between permissible and impermissible conditions on federal grants is whether the condition is a condition or a regulation, which turns on whether the requirement specifies how the money should be spent. According to Justice O’Connor, the Spending Clause does not empower Congress to impose requirements on a grant that go beyond specifying how the money should be spent.

Discussion.

The Spending Clause of Article I gives Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” According to the Supreme Court, Congress may, incident to this power, condition the receipt of federal funds upon compliance with statutory and administrative directives. Additionally, Congress may use this power to attain objectives that are not considered to be within Congress’ enumerated Constitutional powers. United States v. Butler.

According to the Supreme Court, Supreme Court precedent established four limitations on the spending power: (1) the exercise of the spending power must be in pursuit of the general welfare, and courts should defer substantially to Congress in these determinations; (2) if Congress wants to condition states’ receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously, enabling states to make an informed choice; (3) conditions on federal grants may be illegitimate if they are unrelated to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs, and; (4) other constitutional provisions may independently bar the conditional grant of federal funds.

The Twenty-First Amendment repealed prohibition and prohibited the transportation or importation of alcohol into a state in violation of that state’s laws, giving states the power to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol. South Dakota argued that Congress’ law violated the Twenty-First Amendment,  implicating the fourth limitation on the spending power. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the fourth limitation is not a prohibition on the indirect achievement of objectives which Congress may not directly achieve. The Supreme Court also held that Congress’ law was not so coercive as to transform from pressure to compulsion upon the states. Even if Congress cannot impose a national minimum drinking age directly, encouragement to state action is a valid use of the spending power.


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