South Dakota v. Dole,
483 U.S. 203 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987)

South Dakota v. Dole

No. 86-260

Argued April 28, 1987

Decided June 23, 1987

483 U.S. 203


Title 23 U.S.C. § 158 (1982 ed., Supp. III) 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. Pp. 483 U. S. 206-212.

(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). Pp. 483 U. S. 206-209.

(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

Page 483 U. S. 204

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. Pp. 483 U. S. 209-212.

791 F.2d 628, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post p. 483 U. S. 212, and O'CONNOR, J., post p. 483 U. S. 212, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 483 U. S. 205

Primary Holding

Notwithstanding the Tenth Amendment, it is constitutional for the federal government to attach conditions to funding grants to states as long as they are reasonable.


The state of South Dakota had a long-standing law that set the drinking age at 19 for consumption of beer that contained up to 3.2% alcohol. This law was undermined by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed by the federal government in 1984. Congress required states to set the minimum drinking age at 21, or lose 10% of federal funding for their highways. South Dakota brought a constitutional challenge to the Act against Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Antonin Scalia

In the majority opinion, Rehnquist found that the Spending Clause justified Congress in imposing this law, despite Tenth Amendment protections for states. While many would argue that the reliance of states on federal funding essentially forced them to comply with the Act, Rehnquist felt that 10% was a sufficiently small amount that provided an incentive rather than compelling states to meet the Act's requirements. He developed a five-part test for determining whether making federal funding contingent on such revisions to state law was constitutional. This consisted of evaluating whether the spending promotes the general welfare, the condition is unambiguous, the condition has a connection to a federal interest in certain national projects or programs, the condition is not unconstitutional in itself, and the condition is not overly coercive. The main areas for argument are the last two factors, since most federal laws meet the first three requirements.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)

While she did not disagree with the majority's overall test, O'Connor was not persuaded that a condition related to highway funds was reasonably related to the goal of reducing drunk driving by young people. She noted that people of all ages get behind the wheel while intoxicated, so the law would result in only a small incremental improvement. Moreover, the law prohibited drinking in that age group in all circumstances, and it was unreasonable to assume that all or most young people who drink are likely to drive afterward.

Case Commentary

States have fewer rights vis-a-vis the federal government than individuals do, so this indirect use of the Spending Clause is not overly intrusive and does not violate doctrines against commandeering state resources to achieve federal ends. This case illustrates that the Spending Clause is one of the most broadly interpreted provisions on the powers of the federal government, which makes it a useful basis for regulation.

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