South Dakota v Dole (1987)

South Dakota v. Dole was argued April 28, 1987 and decided June 23, 1987. It was a case that impelled Congressional limits on funding for states that did not follow the federal drinking age of 21.  South Dakota allowed individuals 19 and up to purchase beer with up to 3.2 percent alcohol. As a consequence, the Department of Transportation withheld approximately five percent of the federal highway funds earmarked for the state.  The issue solved was whether it was beyond congress’ limit to withhold funds from states that are inconsistent with the 21-year old drinking age that is encouraged by the federal government. In a 7-2 decision, the court answer to the question was no.

The court upheld that such acts of congress to withhold funding from states that were inconsistent from regulations on the drinking age was constitutional and within the limits of the congress’ spending power, with interpretation of the 10th and 21st amendment too  The majority stated, “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” (FindLaw, n.d.). Congress found that it was unsafe to have differing drinking ages in the states, and it created negative motives for youth to irresponsibly drink and drive. That is the interstate problem that requires national recognition. The majority upheld congress’ spending power in this case stating its spending technique is in pursuit of promoting the general welfare of the people that is stated explicitly in the Bill of Rights.  The majority also states that there is no ambiguity in states choice, and they are fully aware of the consequences when choosing not to follow federal guidelines regarding the uniformed legal drinking age.

The majority, again, rebuts states violations of the 10th amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Majority expresses, “The State contended that an order under this provision to withhold certain federal funds unless a state

official was removed invaded its sovereignty in violation of the Tenth Amendment.” Though finding that “the United States is not concerned with, and has no power to regulate, local political activities as such of state officials,” the Court nevertheless held that the Federal Government “does have power to fix the terms upon which its money allotments to states shall be disbursed” (FindLaw, n.d.). The court intended that it was within the state’s choice to exercise their freedoms beyond Federal regulations because the state could, and did, adopt “the ‘simple expedient’ of not yielding to supposed federal coercion.” However with that choice, there are consequences and stipulations that both parties are aware of if state does choose to be independent from federal regulations that are uniformed for the nation. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Furthermore, the majority makes claims that it is within congressional power to decide how to disburse money to states that does not comply with their Federal regulations.

The majority also makes claims against the 21st amendment that declared legality of alcohol with restrictions on age and state compliance, reasoning “Even if Congress, in view of the Twenty-first Amendment, might 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 (FindLaw, n.d.).” Here you see where the spending power of congress impels all of state’s claims. Congressional powers are definitely important as they act to regulate the economy and promote the general welfare. In a case like this you see how congress has to properly exercise their powers delegated in benefit for the whole.


“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions.” Findlaw. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

(Summary of the precedent case that directly corresponds to Congress’ Spending power alike with NFIB v. Sebelius.)


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