In 1987, the power of the 21 st Amendment of the Constitution was in question by South Dakota and the State Secretary of Transportation (1983-87), 1 Elizabeth Dole. The 21 st Amendment declares that states have complete control over production, sale, and transportation of alcohol and that liquor importation and sale are no longer prohibited among states of the US (since the prohibition law of the 18 th Amendment). However, a federal law states that in order for a portion of federal highway funds to be given by the federal government to an individual state, that state must adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 years of age. Michigan is an example of this law, for because our minimum drinking age is 21, we receive highway funds from the federal government.
Therefore, this law directs Dole to withhold a percentage of highway funds from states who refuse to set their drinking age law at 21 or over. South Dakota was one such state, with a minimum age of 19 required to buy beer up to 3. 2% alcohol content. They claimed that the federal law violated constitutional limitations on Congress spending power (Article I) and also violated the 21 st Amendment.
South Dakota believed that the power of setting a drinking age is and should be reserved to the state, and their power was weakened by this federal law. The main issue confronted in this case was whether or not the 21 st Amendment was violated by this federal law on state drinking age. The case was heard by a US District Court (dismissed case, South Dakota appealed), then the Court of Appeals affirmed the case and it was then heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision was a 7: 2 vote that the federal government's law did not violate the 21 st Amendment in any way, and that the law was a valid use of congressional spending power. The Supreme Court agreed that the Congress did not have the power to impose a national drinking age by direct legislation. Congres did, however, have the power to set conditions on receipt of federal funds, therefore mostly controlling those funds.
It was said that "Congress encourages uniformity in drinking ages." 2 This means that Congress is regulating the drinking age indirectly but does not violate any constitutional Amendment. "Congress can tempt, not coerce." 2 There is a difference between tempting and coercing, and between forcing compliance and buying compliance, the Congress executing the latter action. They stressed only mild encouragement to US states to change the drinking age. Another factor affecting the Supreme Court's decision on the case was the fact that only a mere 5% of federal highway funds was at stake, so a decision either way would not change money matters severely. Also, the decision satisfies the requirement for congressional spending for the "general welfare" of the states, not for personal advancement but for the improvement of the US as a whole.
One point that the federal government was trying to stress with their highway fund/ drinking age law was that the lack of uniformity among US state drinking age laws was an interstate problem, and a dangerous one as well. The Congress wished to find uniformity within a drinking age law, or regulate the sale and commerce of liquor in another way. However they could only do this by indirect means. The case of South Dakota vs. Dole ended with the decision that the federal law backed by Dole was not a violation of the 21 st Amendment used by South Dakota. Therefore, in order to receive federal highway funds, South Dakota must comply with the federal law and raise their minimum drinking age to 21 years of age.
Works Cited "Dole, Elizabeth." Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. Copyright 1996. Softkey Multimedia Inc. (computer) United States Government: Democracy in Action. Glencoe, pp. 103-4..