South Dakota v. Dole

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483 U.S. 203 (1987), argued 28 Apr. 1987, decided 23 June 1987 by vote of 7 to 2; Rehnquist for the Court, Brennan and O’Connor in dissent. In this case the Supreme Court upheld congressional legislation that required states to raise their legal drinking age to twenty-one as a condition of receiving their full allotment of federal highway funds. The Court rejected South Dakota's arguments that such a requirement violated congressional power under the spending clause and also under the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed prohibition and gave to the states authority over alcoholic beverages.

Congressional restrictions on grants to the states are constitutional, the Supreme Court held, if they meet four requirements. First, the spending must be in the “general Welfare,” although “courts should defer substantially to the judgment of Congress” in this regard (p. 207). Second, Congress's conditions on a state's receipt of funds must be “unambiguous.” Third, conditions on federal grants must not be unrelated to “the federal interest in particular national projects or programs.” Finally, the conditions placed on a grant must not run afoul of “other constitutional provisions … [that] provide an independent bar” to Congress's restrictions (p. 207). The last condition, the Court explained, means only that Congress cannot use a conditional grant to induce states to engage in unconstitutional activities.

The Court held that all four conditions had been met. Only the last produced even a serious argument from the Court. O’Connor, in dissent, suggested that Congress's interest in setting a minimum drinking age of twenty-one was insufficiently related to its interest in highway construction under the third part of the test.

William Lasser

Subjects: Law.

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