WASHINGTON -- A government lawyer says Congress has a right to attach strings to federal money and urged the Supreme Court to allow the withholding of highway funds from states that fail to raise their drinking age to 21.
'There is an important federal interest in eliminating the incentive to drink and drive,' Deputy Solicitor General Louis Cohen said during hourlong arguments Tuesday.
But the attorney general of South Dakota said the 21st Amendment gives states the power to set their drinking age.
South Dakota, one of only four states that have not raised the legal drinking age to 21, is challenging the 1984 Uniform Minimum Drinking Age Act.
The intent of the 21st Amendment, adopted in 1933 to repeal Prohibition, was 'to remove the federal government from the area of alcohol regulation,' state Attorney General Robert Tellinghuisen said.
'The blanket provision requiring states to adopt a uniform drinking age ... takes away from the states the ability to make those decisions themselves,' he said.
South Dakota is appealing a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the drinking age measure.
The law in question directs the transportation secretary to withhold a portion of federal highway construction funds -- 5 percent this fiscal year and 10 percent every year thereafter -- from each state that does not raise its drinking age to 21.
The law was enacted after a presidential commission concluded teenage drinking was a major cause of highways deaths, exacerbated by a variety of drinking ages that sent many youths across state borders in search of booze.
South Dakota allows 19- and 20-year-olds to drink low-alcohol beer, which is sold in outlets separate from regular liquor stores.
Tellinghuisen said the state has a reason for setting its drinking age at 19.
'We're suggesting that the gradual introduction of alcohol in a person's life is better than at age 21 shoving them through the door,' he said.
Cohen said Congress's spending powers include a right to set conditions on how money may be spent.
'We don't want to use federal monies to improve highways that are used by teenagers in quest of alcohol,' he said.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have a drinking age of 21. South Dakota has a law raising the drinking age to 21 as of April 1988 if its court test is unsuccessful.
The other three states that have not raised their drinking age are Colorado, Ohio and Wyoming.