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July 6, 1976



Burger, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens.

Author: Stevens

[ 428 U.S. Page 581]

 MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.*fn*

In Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341, the Court held that the Sherman Act was not violated by state action displacing competition in the marketing of raisins. In this case we must decide whether the Parker rationale immunizes private action which has been approved by a State and which must be continued while the state approval remains effective.

The Michigan Public Service Commission pervasively regulates the distribution of electricity within the State and also has given its approval to a marketing practice which has a substantial impact on the otherwise unregulated business of distributing electric light bulbs. Assuming, arguendo, that the approved practice has unreasonably restrained trade in the light-bulb market, the District Court*fn1 and the Court of Appeals*fn2 held, on the authority of Parker, that the Commission's approval exempted the practice from the federal antitrust laws. Because we questioned the applicability of Parker to this situation, we granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 821. We now reverse.

Petitioner, a retail druggist selling light bulbs, claims that respondent is using its monopoly power in the distribution of electricity to restrain competition in the sale of bulbs in violation of the Sherman Act.*fn3 Discovery

[ 428 U.S. Page 582]

     and argument in connection with defendant's motion for summary judgment were limited by stipulation to the issue raised by the Commission's approval of respondent's light-bulb-exchange program. We state only the facts pertinent to that issue and assume, without opining, that without such approval an antitrust violation would exist. To the extent that the facts are disputed, we must resolve doubts in favor of the petitioner since summary judgment was entered against him. We first describe respondent's "lamp exchange program," we next discuss the holding in Parker v. Brown, and then we consider whether that holding should be extended to cover this case. Finally, we comment briefly on additional authorities on which respondent relies.


Respondent, the Detroit Edison Co., distributes electricity and electric light bulbs to about five million people in southeastern Michigan. In this marketing area, respondent is the sole supplier of electricity, and supplies consumers with almost 50% of the standard-size light bulbs they use most frequently.*fn4 Customers are billed for the electricity they consume, but pay no separate charge for light bulbs. Respondent's rates, including the omission of any separate charge for bulbs, have been approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission, and may not be changed without the Commission's approval. Respondent must, therefore, continue

[ 428 U.S. Page 583]

     its lamp-exchange program until it files a new tariff and that new tariff is approved by the Commission.

Respondent, or a predecessor, has been following the practice of providing limited amounts of light bulbs to its customers without additional charge since 1886.*fn5 In 1909 the State of Michigan began regulation of electric utilities.*fn6 In 1916 the Michigan Public Service Commission first approved a tariff filed by respondent setting forth the lamp-supply program. Thereafter, the Commission's approval of respondent's tariffs has included implicit approval of the lamp-exchange program. In 1964 the Commission also approved respondent's decision to eliminate the program for large commercial customers.*fn7 The elimination of the service for such customers became effective as part of a general rate reduction for those customers.

In 1972 respondent provided its residential customers with 18,564,381 bulbs at a cost of $2,835,000.*fn8 In its accounting to the Michigan Public Service Commission, respondent included this amount as a portion of its cost of providing service to its customers. Respondent's accounting records reflect no direct profit as a result of the

[ 428 U.S. Page 584]

     distribution of bulbs. The purpose of the program, according to respondent's executives, is to increase the consumption of electricity. The effect of the program, according to petitioner, is to foreclose competition in a substantial segment of the light-bulb market.*fn9

The distribution of electricity in Michigan is pervasively regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. A Michigan statute*fn10 vests the Commission with "complete power and jurisdiction to regulate all public utilities in the state...." The statute confers express power on the Commission "to regulate all rates, fares, fees, charges, services, rules, conditions of service, and all other matters pertaining to the formation, operation, or direction of such public utilities." Respondent advises us that the heart of the Commission's function is to regulate the "'furnishing... [of] electricity for the production of light, heat or power....'"*fn11

The distribution of electric light bulbs in Michigan is unregulated. The statute creating the Commission contains no direct reference to light bulbs. Nor, as far as we have been advised, does any other Michigan statute authorize the regulation of that business. Neither the Michigan Legislature, nor the Commission, has ever made any specific investigation of the desirability of a lamp-exchange program or of its possible effect on competition in the light-bulb market. Other utilities regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission do not follow the practice of providing bulbs to their customers at no

[ 428 U.S. Page 585]

     additional charge. The Commission's approval of respondent's decision to maintain such a program does not, therefore, implement any statewide policy relating to light bulbs. We infer that the State's policy is neutral on the question whether a utility should, or should not, have such a program.

Although there is no statute, Commission rule, or policy which would prevent respondent from abandoning the program merely by filing a new tariff providing for a proper adjustment in its rates, it is nevertheless apparent that while the existing tariff remains in effect, respondent may not abandon the program without violating a Commission order, and therefore without violating state law. It has, therefore, been permitted by the Commission to carry out the program, and also is required to continue to do so until an appropriate filing has been made and has received the approval of the Commission.

Petitioner has not named any public official as a party to this litigation and has made no claim that any representative of the State of Michigan has acted unlawfully.


In Parker v. Brown the Court considered whether the Sherman Act applied to state action. The way the Sherman Act question was presented and argued in that case sheds significant light on the character of the state-action concept embraced by the Parker holding.

The plaintiff, Brown, was a producer and packer of raisins; the defendants were the California Director of Agriculture and other public officials charged by California statute with responsibility for administering a program for the marketing of the 1940 crop of raisins. The express purpose of the program was to restrict competition among the growers and maintain prices in the distribution

[ 428 U.S. Page 586]

     of raisins to packers.*fn12 Nevertheless, in the District Court, Brown did not argue that the defendants had violated the Sherman Act. He sought an injunction against the enforcement of the program on the theory that it interfered with his constitutional right to engage in interstate commerce. Because he was attacking the constitutionality of a California statute and regulations having statewide applicability, a three-judge District Court was convened.*fn13 With one judge dissenting, the District Court held that the program violated the Commerce Clause and granted injunctive relief.*fn14

The defendant state officials took a direct appeal to this Court. Probable jurisdiction was noted on April 6, 1942, and the Court heard oral argument on the Commerce

[ 428 U.S. Page 587]

     Clause issue on May 5, 1942. In the meantime, on April 27, 1942, the Court held that the State of Georgia is a "person" within the meaning of § 7 of the Sherman Act and therefore entitled to maintain an action for treble damages. Georgia v. Evans, 316 U.S. 159.

Presumably because the Court was then concerned with the relationship between the sovereign States and the antitrust laws, it immediately set Parker v. Brown for reargument*fn15 and, on its own motion, requested the Solicitor General of the United States to file a brief as amicus curiae and directed the parties to discuss the question whether the California statute was rendered invalid by the Sherman Act.*fn16

In his supplemental brief the Attorney General of

[ 428 U.S. Page 588]

     California*fn17 advanced three arguments against using the Sherman Act as a basis for upholding the injunction entered by the District Court. He contended (1) that even though a State is a "person" entitled to maintain a treble-damage action as a plaintiff, Congress never intended to subject a sovereign State to the provisions of the Sherman Act; (2) that the California program did not, in any event, violate the federal statute; and (3) that since no evidence or argument pertaining to the Sherman Act had been offered or considered in the District Court, the injunction should not be sustained on an antitrust theory.*fn18

In his brief for the United States as amicus curiae, the Solicitor General did not take issue with the appellants' first argument. He contended that the California program was inconsistent with the policy of the Sherman Act, but expressly disclaimed any argument that the State of California or its officials had violated federal law.*fn19 Later in his brief the Solicitor General drew an

[ 428 U.S. Page 589]

     important distinction between economic action taken by the State itself and private action taken pursuant to a state statute permitting or requiring individuals to engage in conduct prohibited by the Sherman Act. The Solicitor General contended that the private conduct would clearly be illegal but recognized that a different problem existed with respect to the State itself.*fn20 It was the latter problem that was presented in the Parker case.

This Court set aside the injunction entered by the District Court. In the portion of his opinion for the Court discussing the Sherman Act issue, Mr. Chief Justice Stone addressed only the first of the three arguments advanced by the California Attorney General. The Court held that even though comparable programs organized by private persons would be illegal, the action taken by state officials pursuant to express legislative command did not violate the Sherman Act.*fn21

[ 428 U.S. Page 590]

     This narrow holding made it unnecessary for the Court to agree or to disagree with the Solicitor General's view that a state statute permitting or requiring private conduct prohibited by federal law "would clearly be void."*fn22 The Court's narrow holding also avoided any question about the applicability of the antitrust laws to private action taken under color of state law.

Unquestionably the term "state action" may be used broadly to encompass individual action supported to some extent by state law or custom. Such a broad use of the term, which is familiar in civil rights litigation,*fn23 is not,

[ 428 U.S. Page 591]

     however, what Mr. Chief Justice Stone described in his Parker opinion. He carefully selected language which plainly limited the Court's holding to official action taken by state officials.*fn24

In this case, unlike Parker, the only defendant is a private utility. No public officials or agencies are named as parties and there is no claim that any state action violated the antitrust laws. Conversely, in Parker there was no claim that any private citizen or company had violated the law. The only Sherman Act issue decided was whether the sovereign State itself, which had been held to be a person within the meaning of § 7 of the statute, was also subject to its prohibitions. Since the case now before us does not call into question the legality of any

[ 428 U.S. Page 592]

     act of the State of Michigan or any of its officials or agents, it is not controlled by the Parker decision.


In this case we are asked to hold that private conduct required by state law is exempt from the Sherman Act. Two quite different reasons might support such a rule. First, if a private citizen has done nothing more than obey the command of his state sovereign, it would be unjust to conclude that he has thereby offended federal law. Second, if the State is already regulating an area of the economy, it is arguable that Congress did not intend to superimpose the antitrust laws as an additional, and perhaps conflicting, regulatory mechanism. We consider these two reasons separately.

We may assume, arguendo, that it would be unacceptable ever to impose statutory liability on a party who had done nothing more than obey a state command. Such an assumption would not decide this case, if, indeed, it would decide any actual case. For typically cases of this kind involve a blend of private and public decisionmaking.*fn25 The Court has already decided that state authorization,*fn26 approval,*fn27 encouragement,*fn28 or

[ 428 U.S. Page 593]

     participation*fn29 in restrictive private conduct confers no antitrust immunity. And in Schwegmann Bros. v. Calvert Corp., 341 U.S. 384, the Court invalidated the plaintiff's entire resale price maintenance program even though it was effective throughout the State only because the Louisiana statute imposed a direct restraint on retailers who had not signed fair trade agreements.*fn30

In each of these cases the initiation and enforcement of the program under attack involved a mixture of private and public decisionmaking. In each case, notwithstanding the state participation in the decision, the private party exercised sufficient freedom of choice to enable the Court to conclude that he should be held responsible for the consequences of his decision.

The case before us also discloses a program which is the product of a decision in which both the respondent and the

[ 428 U.S. Page 594]

     Commission participated. Respondent could not maintain the lamp-exchange program without the approval of the Commission, and now may not abandon it without such approval. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the option to have, or not to have, such a program is primarily respondent's, not the Commission's.*fn31 Indeed, respondent initiated the program years before the regulatory agency was even created. There is nothing unjust in a conclusion that respondent's participation in the decision is sufficiently significant to require that its conduct implementing the decision, like comparable conduct by unregulated businesses, conform to applicable federal law.*fn32 Accordingly, even though there may be cases in which the State's participation in a decision is so dominant

[ 428 U.S. Page 595]

     that it would be unfair to hold a private party responsible for his conduct in implementing it, this record discloses no such unfairness.

Apart from the question of fairness to the individual who must conform not only to state regulation but to the federal antitrust laws as well, we must consider whether Congress intended to superimpose antitrust standards on conduct already being regulated under a different standard. Amici curiae forcefully contend that the competitive standard imposed by antitrust legislation is fundamentally inconsistent with the "public interest" standard widely enforced by regulatory agencies, and that the essential teaching of Parker v. Brown is that the federal antitrust laws should not be applied in areas of the economy pervasively regulated by state agencies.

There are at least three reasons why this argument is unacceptable. First, merely because certain conduct may be subject both to state regulation and to the federal antitrust laws does not necessarily mean that it must satisfy inconsistent standards; second, even assuming inconsistency, we could not accept the view that the federal interest must inevitably be subordinated to the State's; and finally, even if we were to assume that Congress did not intend the antitrust laws to apply to areas of the economy primarily regulated by a State, that assumption would not foreclose the enforcement of the antitrust laws in an essentially unregulated area such as the market for electric light bulbs.

Unquestionably there are examples of economic regulation in which the very purpose of the government control is to avoid the consequences of unrestrained competition. Agricultural marketing programs, such as that involved in Parker, were of that character. But all economic regulation does not necessarily suppress competition. On the contrary, public utility regulation typically

[ 428 U.S. Page 596]

     assumes that the private firm is a natural monopoly and that public controls are necessary to protect the consumer from exploitation.*fn33 There is no logical inconsistency between requiring such a firm to meet regulatory criteria insofar as it is exercising its natural monopoly powers and also to comply with antitrust standards to the extent that it engages in business activity in competitive areas of the economy.*fn34 Thus, Michigan's regulation of respondent's distribution of electricity poses no necessary conflict with a federal requirement that respondent's activities in competitive markets satisfy antitrust standards.*fn35

The mere possibility of conflict between state regulatory policy and federal antitrust policy is an insufficient basis for implying an exemption from the federal antitrust laws. Congress could hardly have intended state regulatory agencies to have broader power than federal agencies to exempt private conduct from the antitrust laws.*fn36 Therefore, assuming that there are situations in

[ 428 U.S. Page 597]

     which the existence of state regulation should give rise to an implied exemption, the standards for ascertaining the existence and scope of such an exemption surely must be at least as severe as those applied to federal regulatory legislation.

The Court has consistently refused to find that regulation gave rise to an implied exemption without first determining that exemption was necessary in order to make the regulatory Act work, "and ...

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