South Dakota v. Dole

Decision Date23 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-260,86-260
Citation483 U.S. 203,107 S.Ct. 2793,97 L.Ed.2d 171
PartiesSOUTH DAKOTA, Petitioner, v. Elizabeth H. DOLE, Secretary, United States Department of Transportation
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

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. 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. 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 objec- tives 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. 209-212.

791 F.2d 628 (CA 8 1986), 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. ----, and O'CONNOR, J., post, p. ----, filed dissenting opinions.

Roger A. Tellinghuisen, Pierre, S.D., for petitioner.

Louis R. Cohen, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner South Dakota permits persons 19 years of age or older to purchase beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol. S.D.Codified Laws § 35-6-27 (1986). In 1984 Congress enacted 23 U.S.C. § 158 (1982 ed., Supp. III), which directs the Secretary of Transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds otherwise allocable 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." The State sued in United States District Court seeking a declaratory judgment that § 158 violates the constitutional limitations on congressional exercise of the spending power and violates the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution. The District Court rejected the State's claims, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. 791 F.2d 628 (1986).

In this Court, the parties direct most of their efforts to defining the proper scope of the Twenty-first Amendment. Relying on our statement in California Retail Liquor Dealers Assn. v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc., 445 U.S. 97, 110, 100 S.Ct. 937, 946, 63 L.Ed.2d 233 (1980), that the "Twenty-first Amendment grants the States virtually complete control over whether to permit importation or sale of liquor and how to structure the liquor distribution system," South Dakota asserts that the setting of minimum drinking ages is clearly within the "core powers" reserved to the States under § 2 of the Amendment.1 Brief for Petitioner 43-44. Section 158, petitioner claims, usurps that core power. The Secretary in response asserts that the Twenty-first Amendment is simply not implicated by § 158; the plain language of § 2 confirms the States' broad power to impose restrictions on the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages but does not confer on them any power to permit sales that Congress seeks to prohibit. Brief for Respondent 25-26. That Amendment, under this reasoning, would not prevent Congress from affirmatively enacting a national minimum drinking age more restrictive than that provided by the various state laws; and it would follow a fortiori that the indirect inducement involved here is compatible with the Twenty-first Amendment.

These arguments present questions of the meaning of the Twenty-first Amendment, the bounds of which have escaped precise definition. Bacchus Imports, Ltd. v. Dias, 468 U.S. 263, 274-276, 104 S.Ct. 3049, 3056-3058, 82 L.Ed.2d 200 (1984); Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 206, 97 S.Ct. 451, 461, 50 L.Ed.2d 397 (1976). Despite the extended treatment of the question by the parties, however, we need not decide in this case whether that Amendment would prohibit an attempt by Congress to legislate directly a national minimum drinking age. Here, Congress has acted indirectly under its spending power to encourage uniformity in the States' drinking ages. As we explain below, we find this legislative effort within constitutional bounds even if Congress may not regulate drinking ages directly.

The Constitution empowers Congress to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States." Art. I, § 8, cl. 1. Incident to this power, Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and has repeatedly employed the power "to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives." Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 474, 100 S.Ct. 2758, 2772, 65 L.Ed.2d 902 (1980) (opinion of Burger, C.J.). See Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 569, 94 S.Ct. 786, 789, 39 L.Ed.2d 1 (1974); Ivanhoe Irrigation Dist. v. McCracken, 357 U.S. 275, 295, 78 S.Ct. 1174, 1185, 2 L.Ed.2d 1313 (1958); Oklahoma v. Civil Service Comm'n, 330 U.S. 127, 143-144, 67 S.Ct. 544, 553-554, 91 L.Ed. 794 (1947); Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S.Ct. 883, 81 L.Ed. 1279 (1937). The breadth of this power was made clear in United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 66, 56 S.Ct. 312, 319, 80 L.Ed. 477 (1936), where the Court, resolving a longstanding debate over the scope of the Spending Clause, determined that "the power of Congress to authorize expenditure of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by the direct grants of legislative power found in the Constitution." Thus, objectives not thought to be within Article I's "enumerated legislative fields," id., at 65, 56 S.Ct., at 319, may nevertheless be attained through the use of the spending power and the conditional grant of federal funds.

The spending power is of course not unlimited, Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 17, and n. 13, 101 S.Ct. 1531, 1540 n. 13, 67 L.Ed.2d 694 (1981), but is instead subject to several general restrictions articulated in our cases. The first of these limitations is derived from the language of the Constitution itself: the exercise of the spending power must be in pursuit of "the general welfare." See Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 640-641, 57 S.Ct. 904, 908-909, 81 L.Ed. 1307 (1937); United States v. Butler, supra, at 65, 56 S.Ct., at 319. In considering whether a particular expenditure is intended to serve general public purposes, courts should defer substantially to the judgment of Congress. Helvering v. Davis, supra, at 640, 645, 57 S.Ct., at 908-909.2 Second, we have required that if Congress desires to condition the States' receipt of federal funds, it "must do so unambiguously . . ., enabl[ing] the States to exercise their choice knowingly, cognizant of the consequences of their participation." Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, supra, at 17, 101 S.Ct., at 1540. Third, our cases have suggested (without significant elaboration) that conditions on federal grants might be illegitimate if they are unrelated "to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs." Massachusetts v. United States, 435 U.S. 444, 461, 98 S.Ct. 1153, 1164, 55 L.Ed.2d 403 (1978) (plurality opinion). See also Ivanhoe Irrigation Dist. v. McCracken, supra, 357 U.S., at 295, 78 S.Ct., at 1185, ("[T]he Federal Government may establish and impose reasonable conditions relevant to federal interest in the project and to the over-all objectives thereof"). Finally, we have noted that other constitutional provisions may provide an independent bar to the...

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