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

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