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Court to Rule on Tying Drinking Age, U.S. Aid : Reduction of Highway Funds to States That Let Minors Buy Alcohol Assailed as Unconstitutional

December 02, 1986|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, agreeing to referee another clash between federal power and state rights, said Monday that it will decide if Congress may cut off some highway funds to states that do not raise their legal drinking age to 21.

In a 1984 measure aimed at curbing drunk driving by teen-agers, Congress said that states which did not set a minimum drinking age of 21 would lose 5% of their federal highway funds in 1987 and 10% in 1988.

Rights of States Cited

South Dakota and seven other states have refused to go along, saying that the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition, gives states the sole right to set drinking standards. "By enacting its own drinking age," South Dakota Atty. Gen. Mark Meierhenry told the high court, "Congress has usurped the powers granted by the 21st Amendment to states."

However, U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried argued that the measure approved by Congress does not dictate a minimum drinking age to the states, noting that they remain free to accept less money from Washington.

Crossing Borders for Beer

Congress had contended that a minimum national drinking age not only would reduce drunk driving within states but would stop teen-agers from driving across state borders to get beer and liquor in states with a lower legal drinking age.

But the South Dakota attorney general said that his state's approach of selling low-alcohol beer to 19-year-olds is safer because they would tend to stay in bars. If the drinking age were raised, Meierhenry said in his appeal, "more teen-agers will drink in automobiles because they have no lawful gathering places."

So far, however, two federal courts have rejected the state's contention. A district judge agreed with a U.S. Transportation Department move in 1984 to dismiss South Dakota's complaint, and the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision last year.

South Dakota stands to lose $4.6 million in highway construction funds this fiscal year and $9.2 million next year if it ultimately loses its case before the Supreme Court.

Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and Wyoming also have not raised their drinking ages and stand to lose a percentage of their highway funds for fiscal 1987, which began Oct. 1, according to the Transportation Department.

South Dakota vs. Dole (86-260) will be argued before the court in the spring and a decision is expected by July.

In other actions, the justices:

--Refused to hear the appeal of five well-known jockeys, including Willie Shoemaker and Angel Cordero, who opposed a New Jersey law that requires them to undergo daily drug testing. The jockeys said the urine tests, conducted at random on three jockeys a day, violate their constitutional right to be free of "unreasonable searches."

'Vigilant Watchdog'

But in 1985 an appeals court said that the state racing commission's concern with "corruption in horse-racing activities" permits it to be a "vigilant watchdog." Although the courts have upheld drug testing in this case (Shoemaker vs. Handel, 86-576), attorneys say that, because of the special conditions in Thoroughbred racing, it does not set a precedent for other types of workers.

--Refused to block the extradition of a Nazi war crimes suspect to the Soviet Union (Linnas vs. INS, 86-336). Karl Linnas was accused of supervising the killing of 12,000 Jews in a Nazi camp in Estonia during World War II but gained entrance to the United States in 1951 by claiming to have been a student. He had sought to block extradition by contending that he would not get a fair trial in Soviet courts.

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