Sometimes emailers offer a good opportunity correct widely-held erroneous ideas.

In a recent article, I asserted the federal government has very little power to force so-called “sanctuary cities” and states to enforce federal immigration law. Under a well-established legal principle known as the anti-commandeering doctrine, the courts have long held that the federal government cannot coerce states, or their political subdivisions, to enforce federal laws or implement federal programs.

An reader took me to task in an email with the subject line, “Sorry chuckles but the feds DO have the right to compel states and cities.” Here’s what he said (with no edits).

You seemingly forget the Feds REQUIRING the states to raise their drinking age to 21 or lose federal transportation funds in the 1990’s. Supreme Court said this was constitutional and legal.

You seemingly forget the feds REQUIRING the states to raise there smoking age to 21 or lose federal health care funds in the early 2000’s and the Supreme Court said this was constitutional and legal.

None of your cases sited amount to a hill of beans because they deal with a completely different subject. Nice try but major fail.

Typically, I ignore rude, ignorant emails like this. But this guy isn’t the first person to raise the federal minimum drinking age case to argue that the feds can indeed coerce states into enforcing federal law or implementing federal programs. So, I decided it would be worthwhile to explain why this view is wrong.

Here’s the backstory.

In 1984, Congress passed a law requiring states to raise their minimum drinking age to 21. If they did not, they risked losing a small amount of highway funding. The state of South Dakota challenged the law in federal court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that the law was constitutional. Based on this decision, people who don’t understand the case claim it proves the federal government can force states to comply with federal mandates.

This reply to my intrepid emailer explains the problem with this view. I also included a little snark of my own.

Here’s a helpful hint. Don’t send smart-ass, condescending emails when you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. It makes you look like a moron.

Yes, the SCOTUS held the minimum drinking age law to be constitutional in South Dakota v. Dole – 1987. (yes, I am aware of the case. I’ve actually read the opinion.) So, why did SCOTUS hold that the law was constitutional? Because the amount of funding threatened (a maximum 10%) was so small, the court held that it wasn’t coercive. But, the court specifically said in its opinion that the amount of funding withheld cannot be coercive. So, this case actually affirmed the anti-commandeering doctrine.

It was on this basis that the Court later overturned requirements to expand Medicaid in Obamacare. In his opinion in Independent Business v. Sebelius 2012, Justice Roberts held that the federal government couldn’t compel states to expand Medicaid by threatening to withhold funding for Medicaid programs already in place, calling it coercive and a violation of the separation of powers.

The “requirement” to raise the smoking age to 21 has been so effective, that exactly four states currently have such a law on the books. So, apparently the feds can’t force states to enact such legislation.

 The anti-commandeering doctrine dates back to 1842, but Printz v. US – 1997 set it in absolute stone.

“We held in New York that Congress cannot compel the States to enact or enforce a federal regulatory program. Today we hold that Congress cannot circumvent that prohibition by conscripting the States’ officers directly. The Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program. It matters not whether policy making is involved, and no case by case weighing of the burdens or benefits is necessary; such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty.”

It’s your argument that is a fail. Along without your spelling and grammar.

In practice, the federal government can withhold funds related to anything a state/locality refuses to do. For instance, the feds can withhold funding related to immigration enforcement from sanctuary cities. Furthermore, the feds may be able to withhold some other types of law enforcement funding. That’s debatable. But the federal government absolutely cannot withhold unrelated funds. In other words, the feds can’t yank highway funding because a city decides not to enforce immigration laws.

The bottom line is the federal government has a very narrow range of actions that it can legitimately take against a state or local government that doesn’t do its bidding.

Mike Maharrey