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South Dakota v. Dole

A Four-part Test

The Court voted 7-2 to affirm the rulings of the lower courts. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, held that "the bounds of" the Twenty-first Amendment had "escaped precise definition." In any case, the Court did not need to look at the present legal action in light of the Amendment, or at South Dakota's claim that Congress was trying to directly legislate a national minimum drinking age. Instead, the proper arena in which to address the case was from the standpoint of the spending powers clause, and to evaluate the constitutionality of the measures by which "Congress has acted indirectly under its spending power to encourage uniformity in the states' drinking ages."

In United States v. Butler (1936), Steward Machine Co. v. Davis (1937), and other cases, the Court had addressed issues relating to the spending powers of Congress. Through such cases, it had developed a four-part test to limit the exercise of such power. First, such exercise "must be in pursuit of the general welfare," the latter a phrase directly from the Constitution; and in making this determination, Rehnquist wrote, "courts should defer substantially to the judgment of Congress." Second, if Congress wants to put conditions on the states' receipt of federal funds, it should do so in an unambiguous way that makes the states fully aware of their choices and the consequences. Third, these conditions should be related "to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs." And fourth, of course, the spending regulations could not violate the Constitution.

The only serious challenge, either from South Dakota or from the dissenters on the Court, came in the area of the fourth stipulation. Here the Court turned not to the Twenty-first Amendment, as the petitioners urged, but to Butler, which established that Congress had greater power to indirectly regulate the states by withholding funds than it did to directly regulate. In other words, while it might be difficult under the Constitution for Congress to tell a state what its minimum drinking age should be, there was less limitation on Congress's power to withhold federal highway funds from a state which refused to comply with what Congress viewed as appropriate drinking-age regulations. Rehnquist's point in this area was further reinforced by Oklahoma v. Civil Service Commission (1947), in which the Court found that "the United States is not concerned with, and has no power to regulate, local political activities"--yet it did "have power to fix the terms upon which its money allotments to states could be disbursed."

Finally, the Court noted that the "punishment" imposed on South Dakota was minor, and hardly coercive. If it refused to raise its drinking age, the state would lose five percent of federal highway funds. As he concluded, Chief Justice Rehnquist quoted the Court's opinion in Steward Machine Co.: "[E]very rebate from a tax when conditioned upon conduct is in some measure a temptation. But to hold that motive or temptation is equivalent to coercion is to plunge the law in endless difficulties." In the end, the Court had held--and the present Court reaffirmed the concept--that freedom of will, not coercion, determined results.

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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