South Dakota v. Dole (1987)


South Dakota v Dole (1987) is a case that came about after a teenager was killed by a drunk driver. This caused Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to push for legislation establishing a national drinking age of twenty-one. As a result the PCDD (President’s Commission Against Drunk Driving) was established to make recommendations to lower the number of alcohol related deaths. From this they wanted every state to change their drinking age twenty-one, or they could lose a percentage of their federal highway funds. President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act on July 17th, 1984.

The question that arose from this act was, “ Did Congress exceed its spending power, or violate the 21st Amendment, by passing legislation conditioning the award of federal highway funds state’s adoption of a uniform minimum drinking age?” In a 7 to 2 decision the USSC held that Congress acted indirectly to encourage uniformity in the state’s drinking ages, was within the constitutional bounds. The legislation was in the pursuit of the “general welfare”. The five percent loss of federal highway funds was not coercive. The significance of the case is that the USSC said that Congress was doing this for the “general welfare”,being able to promote the general welfare through the spending powers, and that it did not violate the twenty-first amendments spending power. Being able to use the spending power as an incentive to get states to increase the drinking age to 21 is a push to promote the general welfare of the United States as a whole.

Case Timeline


Before the prohibition of alcohol, the drinking age varied from state-to-state with the most states not enforcing a drinking age at all. In 1920, the 18th amendment was ratified, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States completely. Following, the 21st  amendment was ratified in December 1933, repealing the prohibition. For almost 40 years there was no concern for a national minimum drinking age. Most states had voluntarily established their minimum drinking age to 21 years old, but some set it lower.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, nearly all states lowered the drinking age to 18. as a result, This led to a huge increase in alcohol-related car accidents and drunk driving was deemed a public health crisis. In the mid-1970s, 60 % of all traffic fatalities were alcohol related, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Over two-thirds of car accidents involving persons aged 16 to 20 were alcohol-related. In response to the drunk driving epidemic of the 1970s, President Ronald Reagan passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act in July 1984, a law that mandated states increase the drinking age to 21.

The state of South Dakota permitted persons 19 years of age and older to purchase beverages  that contained up to 3.2% of alcohol. subsequently, the Minimum Drinking Age Act was enacted, requiring the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds from any state that did not require only persons 21 years or older to purchase alcoholic beverages.

Procedural History

On April 28, 1987 South Dakota sued in United States District Court seeking a declaratory judgment that stating that the Minimum Drinking Age Act violated the constitutional limitations on congressional exercise of the spending power and violates the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution. The claim was rejected by the District Court and the Supreme Court of the U.S affirmed.


The Constitutional issue addressed in this case is whether or not Congress, under constitutional law, exceeded its spending powers or violated the 21st amendment by withholding a portion of federally allocated monies for  roads by establishing a tax or incentive to states who raise their minimum drinking age to 21 years old.


No. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court held that Congress did not exceed its spending powers, or violate the Twenty-First Amendment, by passing legislation conditioning the award of the federal highway funds on the state’s’ adoption of a uniform minimum drinking age. Because Congress was acting indirectly and in “pursuit of the general welfare” the Minimum Drinking Age Act was constitutional.

Majority Opinion

In relation to the spending power, the Court found that the legislation was in pursuit of “the general welfare,” therefore, Congress could condition the reward of federal funds. Conditioning the receipt of federal funds was not unconstitutional as long as it was in pursuit of “the general welfare”,  as long as it was clear to the states that they had a choice and were aware of the consequence for noncompliance, and finally, as long as the conditions for highway funding were related to a national concern, which in this case was highway safety.

South Dakota only challenged the condition of federal funds saying that it is unconstitutional for Congress to regulate the drinking age. In relation to the 21st amendment,  which allowed states to set their own laws for liquor licensing and alcohol consumption, the Court held that just because Congress enforces the minimum drinking age, does not mean that it regulates it. Congress can influence the minimum drinking age with incentives and penalties as long as it is not compelling states to to institute the law. The Court asserted that conditioning federal funding does not require strict standards like determining what Congress can do directly.Because withholding a percentage of federal funds is not coercive to that States, and does not improperly exercise the taxing and spending power of Congress. Therefore the issue should be settled that South Dakota has the power to comply with the regulation, or keep their law the same, although it comes with penalties.

Separate Opinions

Justice O’Connor argues that the conditioning of federal highway funds should be related to the purpose for which the funds are disbursed. In this case, the funds being allocated to the states are for the promotion and construction of highway safety., and not to regulate the drinking age. O’Connor says that underage drinking is not adequately related to the construction of interstate highways, stating that the Minimum Drinking Age Act is an exercise of the regulatory power and not the spending power. She says that the 21st amendment gives this power solely to the states.

Justice Brennan also dissented. He sided with O’Connor on the fact that regulating the minimum age of drinking falls directly within the scope of these powers given to the States by the 21st amendment. Since States possess this constitutional power, Congress cannot condition a federal grant in a manner that curtails this right. The Amendment, itself, strikes the proper balance between federal and state authority.

Significance/ Impact

In 1791, the 10th amendment was ratified, basically stating that any powers that were not explicitly delegated by the Constitution or “prohibited by it to the States” are then reserved individually to the States or to the people. However, in 1937, the Supreme Court drew back on the 10th amendment, allowing Congress to regulate in those areas that were usually reserved to the States, so long as Congress’ terms for which the States were to comply were related to the regulations for states to receive federal funds. The states had a choice whether to accept or reject the federal funds, which would be on a conditional basis, therefore retaining their authority. So, when Congress enacted the Minimum Drinking Age Act, it was to be known that the States had a choice to comply or not.

When South Dakota challenged this law, ultimately sending the case up to the Supreme Court, the Court assessed the case and the constitutionality based off of four aspects- (1) If the spending power was in pursuit of the general welfare (2) the conditions for the grant were clearly stated (3)the conditions for receiving the grant were related to a federal interest in the national project and finally (4) if the case had used their spending power to induce states to do things that would themselves be unconstitutional. With each aspect of the cases, the Court had determined that Congress had done nothing unconstitutional. Yet, later on in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the Court determined that it was unconstitutional for Congress to threaten the state with withholding federal funding for refusing to coverage in the way Congress sought. Similarly, in the case of United States v. Lopez, the Court declared it unconstitutional for Congress to condition receipt of federal prison funds. But in South Dakota v Dole, Court explicitly deemed the act of conditioning receipt for federal highway funds constitutional.

Professor Albert Rosenthal explained why he felt these conditions were sustained in the case as opposed to other cases. “One factor that may explain the ease with which these restrictions were sustained is that in each case the fraction of federal subsidy at risk was fairly small, suggesting that the states could have resisted without suffering crippling financial loss if they really thought their integrity was threatened. Another factor is that, despite the small price of resistance, most states complied with little grumbling. The power to condition is not necessarily the power to destroy.” 1  The 5% loss that the States were threatened with in failure to comply  with the legislation posed no major or detrimental loss to States who refused.

By the time South Dakota v. Dole was decided, the case was moot. The concern for the drinking age was legally in full effect for all states. While the Minimum Drinking Age Act initiated a national concern throughout the states for underage drinking, ultimately saving many lives due to alcohol related traffic accidents, the larger issues of the case had yet to be resolved. South Dakota v. Dole became a precedent case and mentioned multiple times in the 1990s as the major guideline for which other cases argued over Congress’ spending power.

In NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) Chief Justice Roberts cited South Dakota v. Dole saying that the conditions for which the funds would be held from the States who failed to adopt a minimum drinking age were “relatively mild encouragement”and that in doing so, or refusing not to do was South Dakota’s prerogative.  In the case of NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) the question was if the “financial inducement offered by Congress was so coercive as to the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.’” Yet, while Congress did pose a much more than mild encouragement in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), penalizing States who did not adopt the Affordable Care Act would lose all of it’s funding for the new population, it “still does not include surprising participating States with post-acceptance or ‘retroactive’ condition.” 2 The court agreed that the mechanism was unconstitutional but the states still had a choice whether or not they wanted to adopt the Act or face the threat of losing funding for Medicaid.

The significance of South Dakota v. Dole was the fact that it addressed lasting issues. These included Congress’ “spending power, the relative authority of the federal government and that of the states, and the line between inducement and encouragement,” 3 which ultimately decided if Congress had the power to grant reward of a behavior that sought fit for the States, or deny the reward in the event the States did not want to comply. This case ultimately set the precedent for which Congress could regulate spending power. The decision of South Dakota v. Dole clarified that line between Congress’ powers and the power of the States.  Not only did the case prove significance legally, but it also had a substantial impact on the country as a whole.

While there were legal issues that arose from the Minimum Drinking Act, legality wasn’t the concern in the establishment of the regulation. Before 1984, the minimum drinking age showed variation from state to state. During the Vietnam War era, states lowered the drinking ages to 18, 19, or 20, later increasing them after seeing increases in alcohol related traffic incidents. Yet, the states with lower drinking ages would cross state lines to drink alcohol legally. With strong support from Mothers against Drunk Driving, the National Parent Teacher Association and other groups, Congress in 1984 passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act which  gave states a financial incentive to adopt a higher drinking age. Drunk-driving accidents had dropped by 50 percent since the law was passed. The greatest proportion of  this decline was among adolescents aged 16 to 20 year olds, indicative of the need for the Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Text of Case Opinions


Majority Opinion (Rehnquist)

Dissenting Opinion (O’Connor)

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan)

External Resource Links

“Craig v. Boren 429 U.S. 190 (1976).” Justia. Justia Law, 2015. 8 Nov. 2015. <>. This case will serve as background to establish the previous notion for the interpretation of the 21st Amendments spending powers portion.

Hall, Jim. CSPI: Fact sheet — age-21 — facts. Feb. 1998. 8 Nov. 2015. <>. This external resource talks about why lower the minimum drinking age is a bad idea.

O’Malley, Patrick, and Alexander Wagenaar. MINIMUM DRINKING AGE LAWS: EFFECTS ON AMERICAN YOUTH. n.d. 8 Nov. 2015. <>. In this article it discusses what effects have been put upon the youth. Also, it talks about what can happen with underage drinking. Also this resource shows statistics from all the states.

“Underage Drinking and the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) Law.” n.d. 8 Nov. 2015. <>. This article is MADD a group which played a major role in establishing the national minimum drinking age. In this article it will go in depth to the rules of the MLDA.

WAGENAAR, ALEXANDER. Effects of minimum drinking age laws. 23 Sept. 2005. 8 Nov. 2015. <>. This article is meant to serve as a guide to show the effects per state of the minimum drinking age. This shows the improvements or effects of the minimum drinking age.

Major Statute Under Review

National Minimum Drinking Age Act

Important Precedents

United States v Butler (1936)

California Retail Liquor Dealers Association v. Midcal Aluminum Inc.(1980)

Important Subsequent Cases

New York v. United States (1992)

United States v. Lopez (1995)

NFIB v. Sebelius (2012)





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