Federal courts are filled with situations where an inmate might rely on the prison mail system to mail a document to the court. However, the prison mail system is notoriously unreliable. The prison mailbox rule was formed to provide a fair opportunity for inmates to personally mail a filing to the court before the expiration of the legally permitted time to file.

Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(c) codifies the prison mailbox rule. It provides that an inmate’s appeal is considered filed with the clerk when the inmate delivers the filing to prison mail authorities. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Houston v. Lack, an explicit prison mailbox rule did not exist. In formulating the prison mailbox rule in Houston, the Court focused specifically on the struggles faced by pro se prisoners when filing paperwork with the courts. This Note addresses the dispute that was born among the federal circuit courts following the Court’s decision in Houston and the adoption of Rule 4(c).

More specifically, this Note addresses whether the prison mailbox rule applies to all prisoners, including those represented by counsel, or whether the rule applies only to pro se prisoners. The question of whether the rule applies to both represented and unrepresented prisoners with equal force comes up with regularity in the federal courts. Where the prison mailbox rule is implicated, whether an inmate’s appeal will be heard on its merits may depend exclusively on geography—does the inmate live in a circuit that follows a narrow interpretation of the rule? If the answer is yes, the appeal may be dismissed, no matter the strength of the appeal on its merits. Only if the answer is no may the appeal be heard on its merits. This Note proposes that the Supreme Court put an end to the disparate treatment of inmate appeals among the circuits by clarifying both Rule 4(c) and its decision in Houston. Due to the text of Rule 4(c) and the policy behind the creation of the prison mailbox rule, this Note suggests that the Supreme Court, in resolving the split among the circuits, hold that a broad interpretation of the prison mailbox rule should be employed, thus rightfully allowing all inmates, rather than just unrepresented inmates, to benefit from the rule’s protection.

Included in

Law Commons