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.