Student attorneys in the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law recently won two significant cases on the “prisoner mailbox rule,” which involved whether prisoners could be penalized for the prison’s delayed delivery of time-sensitive paperwork to the Court.
Earlier this year, the Clinic was contacted by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to help with an appeal by Charles Martin, a prisoner at the Maine State Prison, who was disciplined by the prison for an alleged rule infraction. Mr. Martin filed an appeal of the discipline with the Superior Court, and gave his Court paperwork to the prison mail system, as required by the prison, 7 days before it was due to be at the Court, less than 10 miles away. Because his paperwork did not arrive until 8 days later, one day late according to the rules, the Superior Court dismissed his appeal for being filed late. A little while later the Maine Supreme Judicial Court asked the Clinic to also represent Horace Salley, another prisoner with a very similar situation.
Alec Youngblood and Michael Walker, two student attorneys at the Clinic, wrote the appeal briefs for Mr. Martin and Mr. Salley, arguing that since prisoners are forced to rely on the Department of Corrections to deliver mail to the post office, and a prisoner has no control over that mail once it is given to the prison, the Court should adopt the “prisoner mailbox rule.” This rule would deem the paperwork “filed” when it is delivered to prison officials. Among the arguments were two arguments under the Maine Constitution: the open courts provision and the due process clause. The U.S. Supreme Court and 22 states had adopted the “prisoner mailbox rule” by court decision, and two other states by rules of procedure. Only two other states, Florida and Oklahoma, had addressed similar constitutional issues before, but they had different provisions than Maine.
On July 24, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided in the Martin case that under our constitution, the fundamental fairness required by the open courts provision, and the due process clauses of the Maine Constitution, all individuals are guaranteed, without partiality, to be able to pursue in Court an effective remedy designed to protect their basic and fundamental rights. For this guarantee to be meaningful, in a situation such as Mr. Martin’s and Mr. Salley’s (his case was decided the same way a week later), any unrepresented prisoner whose petition is delivered to the Department of Corrections at least three days before the last day on which the petition may be filed shall be deemed to have filed in a timely manner with the Court, even if the paperwork does not arrive at the Court until after the deadline has expired. Both Ms. Youngblood’s and Mr. Walker’s arguments were incorporated into the Martin decision.
“This is a significant ruling,” said Jim Burke, Clinical Professor at the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic. “Getting mail in and out of prison has always taken a lot of time, and that time is not predictable. Late delivery of prisoner mail has been a common problem, and now it will not stand in the way of a prisoner getting access to the Court.”