419 U.S. 345 (1974), argued 15 Oct. 1974, decided 23 Dec. 1974 by vote of 6 to 3; Rehnquist for the Court, Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall in dissent. In Metropolitan Edison the Supreme Court considered the issue of when private action is sufficiently public in nature that it becomes bound by constitutional provisions limiting governmental conduct. The case was brought by a resident of York, Pennsylvania, who claimed that Metropolitan Edison, a privately owned utility, violated her due process rights by terminating electric service without adequate notice and the chance for a hearing. The Supreme Court rejected the argument on the ground that the utility was a private entity and hence not bound by the Due Process Clause, which applies only to actions by the state.
The Court over the years has attempted unsuccessfully to develop a workable test to determine when private action is so public in nature, or so infused with public regulation and direction, that it amounts to state action within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. In Metropolitan Edison the plaintiff pointed to the partial monopoly granted by the state, the extensive state regulation, and the essential nature of utility operations as evidence of the state character of the utility's actions. The Court, however, deemed this evidence insufficient to label the utility's conduct as state action.
Metropolitan Edison remains good law on the state action issue, although it is one of many decisions that, taken together, provide confused guidance on the issue. The decision's practical effect for utilities has been altered by legislative enactments.
Eric T. Freyfogle