485 U. S. 535
April 20, 1988
The GI bill helped veterans go to school for 10 years after honorable discharge. This 10 year period could be extended if they missed school due to disabilities not caused by “willful misconduct.” Two veterans were denied this extension when their alcoholism was ruled “willful misconduct.” They sued under the Rehabilitation Act, which denied any discrimination against the handicapped. There was a standing challenge because normally determination about veterans benefits did not get judicial review.
The Court unanimously found standing, since the dispute was over the Rehabilitation Act, and not veterans administration itself. Then the Court held 4-3 that the extension could be denied for alcoholism (Scalia and Kennedy did not participate). White said the same Congress that passed the Rehabilitation Act also intimated that it was fine with alcoholism being deemed “willful misconduct.” White concluded that there was no discrimination against the handicapped – just those who had committed misconduct. In light of the ambiguity about the Rehabilitation Act’s reach, and alcoholism’s status as a ‘disease,’ the Court had no trouble deferring to the veteran’s administration.
Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He told sob stories about the veterans getting into drinking as little children, and how they had no choice in the development of their addiction. Blackmun also cited literature showing how hard it is to beat alcoholism. He thought they deserved to at least argue that they had committed no “willful misconduct,” and that the Rehabilitation Act gave them that right. Legislative history showed that the Rehabilitation Act was intended to cover alcoholism, and the Congressional acquiescence to the “willful misconduct” standard wasn’t entirely explicit.
This is a very interesting case about accountability. Is it fair to hold a full grown man accountable for a habit he developed at age 8? Maybe no, but this is also a case about entitlements. These men were given 10 whole years of free government assistance, and they still demanded more! Government aid is a generous privilege, not some natural right, and I do get tired of Brennan and friends pretending otherwise so often.
483 U. S. 203
June 23, 1987
The 21st Amendment apparently gave states the exclusive right to legislate on the subject of alcohol. Then, along came Congress with a law that stripped states of significant highway funds unless the drinking age was made 21. South Dakota, which had a drinking age of 19, challenged this as an indirect means of destroying the 21st Amendment’s principles.
Rehnquist wrote for a 7-2 majority. The spending clause of Article I allowed Congress to place conditions on receipt of funds as long as those conditions were for the general welfare, and reasonably related to the spending. Because preventing drunk driving on roads met these conditions, there was no problem. As for the 21st Amendment, Rehnquist said that unless a condition actually required states to violate the Constitution, indirect accomplishment of an otherwise illegitimate goal was fine. Finally, he rejected South Dakota’s claim of undue coercion, noting that only 5% of funds would be lost for failure to change the drinking age.
Brennan, without elaboration, said that the 21st Amendment did prohibit Congress from interfering indirectly, and dissented. O’Connor’s more lengthy dissent sharply criticized the notion that drinking ages were ‘reasonably related’ to highway construction. The condition was only tangentially related to the spending, and was also wildly under-inclusive, given that most drunk drivers are over 21 anyway. Under the Court’s logic, said O’Connor, Congress could require a state to choose a capital city closer to the interstate or lose funding.
Though only 14 pages long, and little noticed at the time, this case would gradually come to symbolize everything that is wrong with federalism today. As one scholar memorably put it, Dole was the case that declared states to be mere puppets on the strings of the national government. The only thing wrong with O’Connor’s dissent is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It accepted without question five decades of encroachment on states rights, and objected to the holding only on the narrow ‘reasonably related’ grounds. There’s a long way to go yet before federalism and enumerated powers start to mean anything again.
479 U. S. 335
January 13, 1987
New York had a law that required retailers of alcoholic beverages to sell drinks at a minimum of 12% higher than the “posted” wholesale price. This posted price would be determined by the wholesalers themselves, and the law allowed them to make sales to retailers at prices below its own “posted” prices. 324 Liquor was caught making a sale below the 12% minimum, and had its license temporarily suspended. It then challenged the New York law, claiming that it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.
In a 7-2 decision, Powell held that the New York law was invalid. A long line of precedent had made it clear that industry wide resale price fixing violated the Sherman act. New York argued that there was an exception to this general rule if the price fixing was a result of state action. But this state action exception required that the restraint imposed must be “actively supervised” by the state. Because New York let wholesalers set their own posted prices and then ignore them, all without state review, Powell held that New York could not invoke the state action exception.
Finally, Powell addressed the argument that the Sherman act did not apply because of the state’s power under the 21st Amendment. He went about this by examining the state’s justifications for the law. New York’s justifications of trying to stabilize the retail market and protect small businesses were found to be unsupported by an examination of the actual effects and operation of the law. Therefore, because the state’s interests were so weak, Powell held that the state could not hide behind the 21st Amendment.
O’Connor dissented, and was joined by Rehnquist. She did some highly persuasive analysis of legislative history, which showed that the 21st Amendment was definitively intended to end all application of federal laws to the alcohol industry. She disagreed vigorously with the majority’s inquiry into the weight of New York’s interests, and would have upheld the law as a routine exercise of a state’s 21st Amendment powers.
As I read the case, I was strongly reminded of Nebbia v. New York, when the Court upheld a law that set a minimum price for milk. Four Justices dissented, saying this was an unconstitutional imposition on the rights of businesses. The dissent made a good argument, but in the half century since, the views of the dissent seem to have vanished completely. In any case, on the basis of the arguments that were actually made in Duffy, I think O’Connor had the much stronger opinion. As a final note, reading this case only reinforced my original notion that Iacobucci was wrongly decided. If violating a federal law required close scrutiny of the state’s asserted interest, why does a state’s apparent violation of the First Amendment get almost no scrutiny at all?
479 U. S. 92
November 17, 1986
The city of Newport, Kentucky banned nudity in any establishments that sold or provided alcohol on its premises. Newport was able to pass such an ordinance based on the 21st Amendment, which gives states a broad range of regulatory power over alcohol. In a 1981 Supreme Court case known as Bellanca, a New York law virtually identical to the Newport ordinance was upheld. The New York law had been challenged on First Amendment grounds, but the Court held that some First Amendment activity could be curtailed through 21st Amendment regulation.
According to the Kentucky Constitution, whether or not a city permits alcohol may be determined by a popular election. Thus, Iacobucci contended that Newport lacked the authority to regulate alcohol, since that domain properly belonged to the people. In a 5-4 per curiam decision, the Supreme Court rejected this argument. The majority held that localities can pass ordinances to regulate based on the 21st Amendment, even if the people retain formal authority over whether or not alcohol may be sold.
As usual, Marshall maintained that both parties should be given a chance to present their cases before the Court rendered a decision. Scalia thought the case should have had oral argument, and I agree wholeheartedly. Finally, Stevens wrote a dissent joined by Brennan. The main thrust of the dissent was that Bellanca was wrongly decided, and should be re-examined. Stevens made a fairly strong argument that the 21st Amendment cannot function as a loophole to get around the First Amendment. He also showed that 21st Amendment precedent was a tangled and contradictory mess in general. I’m not sure how I ultimately come out on this case, but it clearly deserved oral argument, and more rigorous analysis than the 5 Justice majority gave it.
Stepping away from the legalities of the case, I find the ordinance at issue incredibly ironic. There is absolutely nothing immoral about drinking alcoholic beverages. The Bible is perfectly clear on that. Conversely, the sexual sin represented by nude dancing is horribly destructive to both the mind and soul. The Bible is perfectly clear about that too. If a government should have power to heavily regulate or ban one of those two activities, it should be the latter. It tells you something about America’s messed up moral priorities that it can only fight something truly sinful by way of regulating another activity which is not sinful at all.