South Dakota v. Dole

Following is the case brief for South Dakota v. Dole, Supreme Court of the United States, (1987)

Case summary for South Dakota v. Dole:

  • A South Dakota state statute permitted the sale of beer containing up to 3.2 percent of alcohol to those 19 and older.
  • Congress passed legislation limiting highway funding to states by five percent when states did not implement a 21 and older drinking law.
  • South Dakota brought a claim against the U.S. Government, claiming that the section violated the Tenth Amendment.
  • The Court held that the potential loss of five percent of funding is not so great as to force states to comply with federal standards. As a result, the creation of section 158 is a valid exercise of the congressional spending power.

 South Dakota v. Dole Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Under state law, persons 19 or older were allowed to buy beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent or lower. Congress drafted 23 U.S.C. section 158, directing  Dole, who was the Secretary of Transportation, to hold up to five percent of the federal funds designated for highways if the states allowed individuals under 21 to purchase alcohol.  In response, the state of South Dakota sued Dole as representative of the U.S. Government, claiming that section 158 violated the 21st Amendment and constitutional limits regarding the spending power of congress.

Procedural History:                

The U.S. district court held that the actions of congress were constitutional. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s opinion. The state appealed to the Supreme Court and the Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Receiving federal funds can be conditional when: exercising the spending power is for the general welfare, conditions are clear and related to a federal interest in a certain program or project and they do not violate any constitutional provision.

Issue and Holding:

Can Congress appropriately withhold federal funding to individual states when the states do not comply with federal conditions? Yes.


The Court affirmed the court of appeal’s decision.


Under the Constitution Congress is granted specific power to tax and spend for the general welfare of the country. Through this power, Congress can condition the receipt of federal funds by states subject to the following limitations:

  • The power must be exercised for the “general welfare;”
  • Conditions on receipt of funds must be unambiguous;
  • Conditions must be related to a federal interest in a particular national project or program; and
  • Conditions must not violate any constitutional provision, like the Tenth Amendment.

The Court held that section 158 satisfied the initial three limitations on Congress’s exercise of its spending powers. This is evident because it is designed to promote the general welfare, includes a clear condition, and is related to federal interest, specifically promoting safe transportation on federal highways to all citizens.

Section 158 is not coercive, so the Tenth Amendment does not apply. The Court supports this by pointing out that noncompliance simply results in a loss of a small five percent of what states would have received.  As a result, the potential loss does not equate to forcing states to comply with a federal standard put in place by Congress.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Brennan):

Regulate the minimum drinking age is a power reserved completely with the states by the 21st Amendment.

Dissenting (O’Connor):

The Code’s section 158 is not a condition on Congress’s spending power which is reasonably related to a federal funds expenditure, and is a congressional attempt to regulate the sale of liquor.


This case set out the four part test when determining whether or not a congressional act falls under the grant of its “spending powers” or a guise to wrongly regulate what is in the states discretion.

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