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Getting off the Dole: Why the Court Should Abandon its Spending Doctrine, and How a Too-clever Congress Could Provoke it to do So


Lynn A. Baker


University of Texas School of Law

Mitchell N. Berman


University of Texas School of Law


U of Texas, Public Law Research Paper No. 51

Abstract:     
The spending power remains the notable exception to the Rehnquist Court's federalism revival, its exercise still governed by the extremely generous 1987 decision in South Dakota v. Dole. Consequently, many commentators, writing in this Symposium and elsewhere, have proposed that Congress should respond to the Rehnquist Court's states' rights decisions by using the spending power to circumvent those limitations on congressional power.

We argue in this Article that those who would urge Congress to exploit Dole to check the Rehnquist Court's states' rights revival might benefit from being more sensitive to the context-dependence of the creation of legal doctrine, and we urge a greater sensitivity to the need for strategic thinking.

Part I reviews Dole and canvasses recent lower court decisions to illustrate just how toothless the Dole test has been in practice. Part II shows why the test is substantively and conceptually infirm. The upshot of this Part, of course, is that Dole should be abandoned. The prevailing scholarly assumption, however, is that it will not be. Indeed, it is precisely this assumption that drives recommendations that Congress use Dole as a blueprint for circumventing the Court's more restrictive federalism cases. Part III scrutinizes the assumption of Dole's durability, focusing in particular on the possibility tht the Court will soon review challenges to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), an act that, among other things, uses the spending power as a lever with which to extend the free exercise rights of state prisoners. We conclude that RLUIPA is unlikely to prod the Court to overturn or even modify Dole. Consequently, Part IV turns attention to the circumventionist strategy, showing just how Congress could exploit the Dole test to get around several of the Rehnquist Court's federalism decisions. Part V argues that the Court is unlikely to tolerate this move. It raises the specter, therefore, of perverse consequences: a too-clever Congress could push a partially reluctant Supreme Court to curb the most important congressional power that the Rehnquist Court's states' rights revival has thus far left untouched.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 86

Keywords: federalism, spending power

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Date posted: April 21, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Baker, Lynn A. and Berman, Mitchell N., Getting off the Dole: Why the Court Should Abandon its Spending Doctrine, and How a Too-clever Congress Could Provoke it to do So. U of Texas, Public Law Research Paper No. 51. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=395222 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.395222

Contact Information

Lynn A. Baker (Contact Author)
University of Texas School of Law ( email )
727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
Mitchell N. Berman
University of Texas School of Law ( email )
727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-232-3525 (Phone)
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