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Maine Constitution Mandates “Prisoner Mailbox Rule”

by Mark Wilson

On July 24, 2018, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court held the state’s constitution requires adoption of a modified version of the “prisoner mailbox rule” when filing petitions for judicial review of prison disciplinary orders.

Maine prisoner Charles M. Martin was found guilty of a disciplinary infraction on April 25, 2016. Pursuant to 5 M.R.S. § 11002, he filed a petition for judicial review of that order by submitting it to prison authorities for mailing to the Superior Court on May 18, 2016. However, the court clerk did not receive the petition until May 26 – one day beyond the 30-day filing deadline imposed by § 11002(3).

The state moved to dismiss, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case because it was filed outside the 30-day deadline. Martin opposed the motion, urging the court to apply the prisoner mailbox rule established in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988). Under that rule, Martin’s petition would have been deemed filed when he gave it to prison officials for mailing on May 18, 2016, rather than when it was received by the court clerk. Concluding that § 11002(3) is “jurisdictional and mandatory,” and that “Maine has not yet adopted the so-called federal mailbox rule,” the Superior Court dismissed the action.

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed. Although Houston is not binding on the states because it involved the interpretation of a federal rule and did not invoke the U.S. Constitution, the Court observed that 24 states have adopted variations of the prisoner mailbox rule.

Finding that it could not consider the case on the same grounds as Houston, the Supreme Judicial Court followed the lead of Florida and Oklahoma in concluding “that the Supreme Court’s rationale in Houston rings of fundamental fairness required by both the open courts provision and due process clause of the Maine Constitution.”

Notably, the Court observed that Maine’s open courts clause derived from the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and had roots in the Magna Carta. Similarly, Maine’s due process clause “is identical to that contained in the United States Constitution.” This supported an argument that the prisoner mailbox rule is also mandated by the fundamental fairness provision of the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, “it is not unconstitutionally unreasonable to require that the petition be delivered to prison authorities at least three days prior to the thirty-day filing deadline,” the Supreme Judicial Court concluded. “A pro se prisoner’s constitutional rights are only violated where – as in this case – he or she completes the prison’s procedures for depositing the petition with the prison for mailing at least three days before the last day on which the petition may be timely filed, and the petition does not reach the clerk of court until after that deadline has passed.”

Accordingly, the Superior Court’s order was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Martin v. Department of Corrections, 2018 ME 103, 190 A.3d 237 (ME 2018). 


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Related legal case

Martin v. Department of Corrections