South Dakota v. Dole
483 U.S. 203 (1987)
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, setting the national legal drinking age to 21 and enforcing this by withholding a small percentage of funds distributed for highways to states that did not have a legal drinking age of 21. South Dakota allowed 19-year-olds to purchase beer below a certain alcohol per volume level and would have their highway funds withheld under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. South Dakota challenged the federal law, claiming that it was a breach of power and violated the Twenty-First Amendment, which gave states the power to regulate alcohol sales. South Dakota argued that Congress should not be able to use its spending powers to coerce states into following federal statutes that conflict with state legislation. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress acted within its means by passing legislation that encourages states to follow federal laws. The majority wrote that it did not violate the Tenth Amendment because Congress was acting within its power of the purse, granted through the Spending Clause. Because the law only withheld a small percentage of funding for highways (5%), the court ruled that it was not coercion, as it was not an unbearable amount withheld. Justice O’Connor wrote that the withheld highway funding was unconstitutional, as the drinking age has nothing to do with highways and teenagers only contribute to a small portion of drunken driving in her dissent.
Petitioner South Dakota permits persons 19 years of age or older to purchase beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol. S. D. Codified Laws § 35-6-27 (1986). In 1984 Congress enacted 23 U. S. C. § 158, which directs the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds otherwise allocable from States "in which the purchase or public possession . . . of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than twenty-one years of age is lawful." The State sued in United States District Court seeking a declaratory judgment that § 158 violates the constitutional limitations on congressional exercise of the spending power and violates the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution.
These arguments present questions of the meaning of the Twenty-first Amendment.
The Constitution empowers Congress to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States." Incident to this power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds and has repeatedly employed the power "to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives."
The spending power is of course not unlimited but is instead subject to several general restrictions articulated in our cases. The first of these limitations is derived from the language of the Constitution itself: the exercise of the spending power must be in pursuit of "the general welfare." In considering whether a particular expenditure is intended to serve general public purposes, courts should defer substantially to the judgment of Congress. Second, we have required that if Congress desires to condition the States' receipt of federal funds, it "must do so unambiguously. ., enabl[ing] the States to exercise their choice knowingly, cognizant of the consequences of their participation." Third, our cases have suggested (without significant elaboration) that conditions on federal grants might be illegitimate if they are unrelated "to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs." Finally, we have noted that other constitutional provisions may provide an independent bar to the conditional grant of federal funds.
South Dakota does not seriously claim that § 158 is inconsistent with any of the first three restrictions mentioned above. We can readily conclude that the provision is designed to serve the general welfare, especially in light of the fact that "the concept of welfare or the opposite is shaped by Congress . . .." Congress found that the differing drinking ages in the States created particular incentives for young persons to combine their desire to drink with their ability to drive and that this interstate problem required a national solution. The means it chose to address this dangerous situation were reasonably calculated to advance the general welfare. The conditions upon which States receive the funds, moreover, could not be more clearly stated by Congress. And the State itself, rather than challenging the germaneness of the condition to federal purposes, admits that it "has never contended that the congressional action was . . . unrelated to a national concern in the absence of the Twenty-first Amendment." Indeed, the condition imposed by Congress is directly related to one of the main purposes for which highway funds are expended -- safe interstate travel. This goal of the interstate highway system had been frustrated by varying drinking ages among the States. A Presidential commission appointed to study alcohol-related accidents and fatalities on the Nation's highways concluded that the lack of uniformity in the States' drinking ages created "an incentive to drink and drive" because "young persons commut[e] to border States where the drinking age is lower." Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, Final Report 11 (1983). By enacting § 158, Congress conditioned the receipt of federal funds in a way reasonably calculated to address this particular impediment to a purpose for which the funds are expended.
The remaining question about the validity of § 158 -- and the basic point of disagreement between the parties -- is whether the Twenty-first Amendment constitutes an "independent constitutional bar" to the conditional grant of federal funds. The constitutional limitations on Congress when exercising its spending power are less exacting than those on its authority to regulate directly.
The "independent constitutional bar" limitation on the spending power is not, as petitioner suggests, a prohibition on the indirect achievement of objectives which Congress is not empowered to achieve directly. Instead, we think that the language in our earlier opinions stands for the unexceptionable proposition that the power may not be used to induce the States to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional. Were South Dakota to succumb to the blandishments offered by Congress and raise its drinking age to 21, the State's action in so doing would not violate the constitutional rights of anyone.
Our decisions have recognized that in some circumstances the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which "pressure turns into compulsion." 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. We cannot conclude that a conditional grant of federal money of this sort is unconstitutional simply by reason of its success in achieving the congressional objective.
When we consider, for a moment, that all South Dakota would lose if she adheres to her chosen course as to a suitable minimum drinking age is 5% of the funds otherwise obtainable under specified highway grant programs, the argument as to coercion is shown to be more rhetoric than fact.
Here Congress has offered relatively mild encouragement to the States to enact higher minimum drinking ages than they would otherwise choose. But the enactment of such laws remains the prerogative of the States not merely in theory but in fact.
Congress has acted indirectly under its spending power to encourage uniformity in the States' drinking ages. We find this legislative effort within constitutional bounds even if Congress may not regulate drinking ages directly.
Even if Congress might lack the power to impose a national minimum drinking age directly, we conclude that encouragement to state action found in § 158 is a valid use of the spending power.
Congress’s invocation of its spending power was appropriate because:
- The law served the general welfare
- The means were reasonably calculated to promote the general welfare
- The conditions on the funds were clearly stated to the states
- The law related to a national concern
- The amount of funding at issue was relatively small, so states were not coerced to enact laws
- The law didn’t force states to do something unconstitutional
Title 23 U. S. C. § 158 directs the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of otherwise allocable federal highway funds from States "in which the purchase or public possession . . . of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than twenty-one years of age is lawful." South Dakota, which permits persons 19 years old or older to purchase beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol, sued in Federal District Court for a declaratory judgment that § 158 violates the constitutional limitations on congressional exercise of the spending power under Art. I, § 8, cl. 1, of the Constitution and violates the Twenty-first Amendment. The District Court rejected the State's claims, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Even if Congress, in view of the Twenty-first Amendment, might lack the power to impose directly a national minimum drinking age (a question not decided here), § 158's indirect encouragement of state action to obtain uniformity in the States' drinking ages is a valid use of the spending power.
(a) Incident to the spending power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds. However, exercise of the power is subject to certain restrictions, including that it must be in pursuit of "the general welfare." Section 158 is consistent with such restriction since the means chosen by Congress to address a dangerous situation -- the interstate problem resulting from the incentive, created by differing state drinking ages, for young persons to combine drinking and driving -- were reasonably calculated to advance the general welfare. Section 158 also is consistent with the spending power restrictions that, if Congress desires to condition the States' receipt of federal funds, it must do so unambiguously, enabling the States to exercise their choice knowingly, cognizant of the consequences of their participation; and that conditions on federal grants must be related to a national concern (safe interstate travel here).
(b) Nor is § 158 invalidated by the spending power limitation that the conditional grant of federal funds must not be independently barred by other constitutional provisions (the Twenty-first Amendment here). Such limitation is not a prohibition on the indirect achievement of objectives which Congress is not empowered to achieve directly, but, instead, means that the power may not be used to induce the States to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional. Here, if South Dakota were to succumb to Congress' blandishments and raise its drinking age to 21, its action would not violate anyone's constitutional rights. Moreover, the relatively small financial inducement offered by Congress here -- resulting from the State's loss of only 5% of federal funds otherwise obtainable under certain highway grant programs -- is not so coercive as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.
O’Connor: Highway maintenance and repair is not related enough to underage drinking as to justify attaching this condition to federal spending. This logic could allow Congress to use too much leverage on the states.
Brennan: Alcohol regulation is the province of the states. The federal government should stay out of it and even indirect involvement in regulating the drinking age is beyond its reach.
How the Justices Voted
Majority: Rehnquist, joined by White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, Scalia