South Dakota v. Dole: The Case and Its Impact

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South Dakota v. Dole (1986) tested whether Congress could place conditions on the distribution of federal funding. The case focused on the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which Congress had passed in 1984. The act determined that a percentage of federal funding for state highways could be withheld if states failed to raise their minimum drinking age to 21.

South Dakota sued on the basis that this act violated the 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court found that Congress did not violate South Dakota's right to regulate the sale of liquor. Under the South Dakota v. Dole decision, Congress can place conditions on the distribution of federal aid to states if those conditions are in the interest of general welfare, legal under the state's constitution, and not overly coercive.

Fast Facts: South Dakota v. Dole

  • Case Argued: April 28, 1987
  • Decision Issued: Jun 23, 1987
  • Petitioner: South Dakota
  • Respondent: Elizabeth Dole, U.S. Secretary of Transportation
  • Key Questions: Did Congress exceed its spending powers, or violate the 21st Amendment, by passing legislation conditioning the award of federal highway funds on South Dakota's adoption of a uniform minimum drinking age?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, Scalia
  • Dissenting: Justices Brennan, O'Connor
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not violate South Dakota's right to regulate the sale of liquor under the 21st Amendment and that Congress could place conditions on federal funding if states failed to raise their drinking age.

Facts of the Case

When President Richard Nixon lowered the national voting age to 18 in 1971, some states chose to lower their drinking ages, too. Using powers derived from the 21st Amendment, 29 states changed the minimum age to either 18, 19, or 20. Lower ages in some states meant that there was a possibility of teenagers crossing state lines to drink. Drunk driving accidents became a heightened concern for Congress which in turn passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act as a way to encourage a uniform standard across state lines.

In 1984, the drinking age in South Dakota was 19 for beer containing an alcohol content of up to 3.2%. If the federal government were to make good on its promise to restrict state highway funds if South Dakota didn’t institute a flat ban, the Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole, estimated a loss of $4 million in 1987 and $8 million in 1988. South Dakota brought a suit against the federal government in 1986 alleging that Congress had stepped beyond its Art. I spending powers, undermining state sovereignty. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment and the case went to the Supreme Court on a writ of certiorari.

Constitutional Issues

Does the National Minimum Drinking Age Act violate the 21st Amendment? Can Congress withhold a percentage of funding if a state refuses to adopt a standard? How does the court interpret Article I of the constitution in terms of federal funds for state projects?

The Arguments

South Dakota: Under the 21st Amendment, states were given the right to regulate the sale of liquor within their state lines. Attorneys on behalf of South Dakota argued that Congress was attempting to use its Spending Powers to alter the minimum drinking age, violating the 21st Amendment. Placing conditions upon federal fundings to convince states to change their laws was an unlawfully coercive tactic, according to the attorneys.

The Government: Deputy Solicitor General Cohen represented the federal government. According to Cohen, the Act did not violate the 21st Amendment or go beyond the Congressional Spending Powers laid out in Article I of the Constitution. Congress was not directly regulating the sale of liquor through the NMDA Act. Instead, it was incentivizing a change that was within the constitutional powers of South Dakota and would help address a public issue: drunk driving.

Majority Opinion

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the court. The court first focused on whether the NMDA Act was within Congress’ spending powers under Article I of the Constitution. Congressional spending power is limited by three general restrictions:

  1. Spending must go towards “the general welfare” of the public.
  2. If Congress places conditions on federal funding, they must be unambiguous and states must fully understand the consequences.
  3. Congress cannot place conditions on federal grants if the conditions are unrelated to the federal interest in a particular project or program.

According to the majority, Congress' aim to prevent teenage drunk driving demonstrated an interest in general welfare. The conditions for federal highway funds were clear and South Dakota understood the consequences if the state were to leave the minimum drinking age at 19.

The justices then turned to the more contentious issue: whether the act violated the state's 21st Amendment right to regulate the sale of alcohol. The court reasoned that the Act did not violate the 21st Amendment because:

  1. Congress did not use its spending power to direct a state to do something that would be otherwise illegal under the state's constitution.
  2. Congress did not create a condition that "might be so coercive as to pass the point at which "pressure turns into compulsion."

Raising the minimum drinking was within South Dakota's constitutional limits. Furthermore, the amount of funding that Congress aimed to withhold from the state, 5 percent, was not overly coercive. Justice Rehnquist called this a "relatively mild encouragement." Restricting a small portion of federal funds to encourage state action on an issue affecting the general public is a legitimate usage of Congressional spending power, the justices opined.

Dissenting Opinion

Justices Brennan and O’Connor dissented on the basis that the NMDA violated a state's right to regulate the sale of alcohol. The dissent focused on whether conditioning federal highway funds was directly connected to the sale of alcohol. Justice O'Connor reasoned that the two were not connected. The condition affected "who shall be able to drink liquor," not how federal highway money should be spent.

O'Connor also reasoned that the condition was both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It prevented 19 year-olds from drinking even if they weren't driving, and targeted a relatively small portion of the drunk drivers. Congress relied on faulty logic to place conditions on federal funding, which violated the 21st Amendment, according to O'Connor.

The Impact

In the years following South Dakota v. Dole, states changed their drinking age laws to adhere to the NMDA Act. In 1988, Wyoming was the last state to raise its minimum drinking age to 21. Critics of the South Dakota v. Dole decision point out that while South Dakota stood to lose a relatively small portion of its budget, other states stood to lose a significantly higher amount. New York, for example, projected a loss of $30 million in 1986 and $60 million in 1987, while Texas would see losses of $100 million annually. The "coerciveness" of the Act varied from state to state, though the Supreme Court never took that into account.


  • “The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
  • Wood, Patrick H. “Constitutional Law: National Minimum Drinking Age - South Dakota v. Dole.” Harvard Journal of Law Public Policy, vol. 11, pp. 569–574.
  • Liebschutz, Sarah F. “The National Minimum Drinking-Age Law.” Publius, vol. 15, no. 3, 1985, pp. 39–51. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • “21 Is the Legal Drinking Age.” Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information, FTC, 13 Mar. 2018,
  • Belkin, Lisa. “Wyoming Finally Raises Its Drinking Age.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 July 1988,
  • “The 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center –, National Constitution Center,
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Spitzer, Elianna. "South Dakota v. Dole: The Case and Its Impact." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Spitzer, Elianna. (2020, August 25). South Dakota v. Dole: The Case and Its Impact. Retrieved from Spitzer, Elianna. "South Dakota v. Dole: The Case and Its Impact." ThoughtCo. (accessed August 12, 2022).