South Dakota v. Dole Summary |
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South Dakota v. Dole Summary |

– [Narrator] In 1984 Congress passed a law withholding a percentage
of Federal Highway funds from any state that didn’t enact a minimum drinking age of 21. South Dakota’s minimum drinking age was 19 and the state didn’t want to raise it, but South Dakota also didn’t want to lose its Federal Highway money. So South Dakota sued Federal
Transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole to block the new law, claiming that it violated the
Constitution spending clause and the 21st Amendment. The Federal District
court upheld the statute and the Court of Appeals for
the 8th circuit affirmed. South Dakota petitioned the
United States Supreme Court for review and the court granted cert. The court considered whether Congress can use conditional Highway funding grants to compel states to raise their minimum drinking ages to 21, even though Congress can’t directly enact a national minimum drinking age. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for a seven Justice majority, held that under the Constitution’s taxing and spending clause, Congress can use conditional funding to promote State compliance
with federal policy, even if Congress couldn’t
directly legislate on the issue. Rehnquist explained that the constitution grants Congress the power to collect taxes and spend money to provide
for the general welfare. There are four limitations
on congress’s spending power. First, the spending must
be for the general welfare, because this is largely a
political consideration, courts should generally
defer to congress’s judgment on this point. Second, if spending is
conditioned on state action, those conditions must be very clear, so that states can act accordingly. Third, conditions should be related to the Federal Government’s
interest in particular Federal programs. Fourth, the statutes
conditions must not conflict with any other constitutional provision. This fourth limitation is known as the independent constitutional bar. Because the law in this case satisfied the first three requirements, Rehnquist then considered
whether the 21st amendment constituted an independent
constitutional bar to the spending condition. South Dakota argued
that the 21st Amendment, which have repealed prohibition, barred Congress from setting a national minimum drinking age. Thus, South Dakota claimed, the 21st amendment was an independent constitutional bar to congress’s policy to withhold highway funds if states refused to pass a de facto national minimum drinking age. The court presumed that Congress couldn’t directly enact a
national minimum drinking age, but held that the 21st Amendment was not an independent constitutional bar. The court reasoned that the independent constitutional bar doctrine prevented Congress only
from compelling the states to act unconstitutionally, such as, by discriminating on the basis of race, or imposing cruel and unusual punishments. In this case, there was
nothing unconstitutional about states enacting a uniform
minimum drinking age of 21. So the independent constitutional bar limitation didn’t apply. Chief Justice Rehnquist
noted that sometimes the Federal Government’s
Financial inducements can be so large as to
become unconstitutionally coercive to the states. But despite the fact
that every other state agreed to institute the
minimum drinking age, Rehnquist described the legislation as nothing more than a
relatively mild inducement for State action. The court affirmed the judgment
of the Court of Appeals. Justice O’Connor dissented. She agreed that conditional
federal spending is subject to the four-part test that the majority described, but she disagreed with how
the majority applied it. To O’Connor, Congress’s goal of setting a national minimum drinking age was not sufficiently related to the Federal Government’s
interest in the construction and operation of safe interstate highways. O’Connor thought the
law was over-inclusive, because it prohibited younger
folks from drinking alcohol even if they weren’t going to be driving on interstate highways. Also the law was under inclusive, because statistics show
that the vast majority of drunk drivers were over the age of 21. O’Connor noted that courts
had upheld other examples of conditional Federal funding only if congress’s
conditions related directly to how the money was spent and not to unrelated social policies. Finally, O’Connor believed
that the 21st amendment gave the states absolute
control over liquor sales within their borders and that a national drinking age was thus outside of
Congress’s commerce powers. Justice Brennan also dissented, agreeing with Justice O’Connor that the 21st Amendment grants the states exclusive power to set drinking ages. In Brennan’s view, Congress cannot compel the states to surrender that right by threatening to withhold
Federal Highway funding. South Dakota vs Dole demonstrates that Congress may use its spending power to indirectly implement National policies, even in areas where
Congress lacks the power to legislate directly.


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