In the 1970s, the Supreme Court was entering into a new era known as the “Modern” era. In this new era, the Justices were known for reinterpreting legal doctrine previously established in a number of issues. Some of these reinterpretations have had substantial influences on the Court, federal government, and the U.S. population as a whole. An example of this is in Congress’ power to tax and spend. However, not all of the reconsiderations by the Court have had a substantial effect. This can be seen in a Federalism case seen by the “Modern” Court.
One case in which the “Modern” Court has reinterpreted legal doctrine pertaining to Congress’ power to tax and spend is in South Dakota v. Dole. This case was decided in 1987 with a 7-2 vote. At issue in this case is a statute that Congress passed to withhold a portion of federal highway money from states that do not have a minimum drinking age of 21 years. South Dakota at the time allowed persons of age 19 or older to purchase beer containing 3.2 % alcohol. They argued that the 21st Amendment, which had repealed Prohibition, gave the states full authority to regulate alcohol.
Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, which ruled against South Dakota. In his opinion, he states that “The spending power is of course not unlimited, but is instead subject to several general restrictions”, one of them being that “…spending power must be in pursuit of the “general welfare”” (pp 546). This means that in order for Congress to use their spending power to regulate drinking ages or anything else, it has to be for the good of the people.
Since 1937, the Court has consistently expanded the interpretation of the power of the federal government to tax and spend. In fact, the last case in which the Court ruled against Congress’ spending powers was in the 1936 decision of U.S. v. Butler, which struck down an act that gave money to farmers essentially not to grow food. As seen in Dole,...