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South Dakota v. Dole

Legal Drinking Age

In 1984, Congress passed into law 23 U.S. 158, which ordered the U.S. secretary of transportation to deny a certain percentage of federal highway funds to states which allowed persons under 21 years of age to drink alcoholic beverages. South Dakota had a law which allowed anyone 19 years of age or older to purchase beer containing up to 3.2 percent alcohol. (Presumably-though the Supreme Court did not specifically address this issue in South Dakota v. Dole--the state did not allow citizens to drink beverages with higher alcohol content until they reached the age of 21.)

South Carolina took the federal government to court over 158, naming Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole (wife of Senator Bob Dole, and future director of the U.S. Red Cross) as the respondent. The suit in district court sought a declaratory judgement that 158 violated Article I, section 8, clause 1 of the Constitution, which limits congressional spending power, as well as section 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment, which South Dakota interpreted as a limitation on federal authority over states' liquor distribution systems--including age limits.

The district court rejected South Dakota's claims, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. When the case came before the Supreme Court, a number of entities filed briefs of amici curiae on either side. Those urging reversal of the lower courts' rulings included the states of Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming; as well as the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Beer Wholesalers' Association. Those urging affirmance included the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Council on Alcoholism, the National Safety Council, and United States Senator Frank R. Lautenberg.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988South Dakota v. Dole - Significance, Legal Drinking Age, A Four-part Test, Dissent: 158 Attempts To Regulate