University of Chicago Law Review

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Unlike typical litigants, pro se prisoners are unable to deliver filings to court or to have an attorney do so on their behalf. Such prisoners are forced to rely on their prisons’ mailing systems to file documents, which often results in those documents reaching the court after the applicable deadlines. Accordingly, the Supreme Court created a “prison mailbox rule” in Houston v. Lack, under which some filings by prisoners are considered filed when they are given to prison officials for mailing, rather than when they reach the court.

Defining the exact reach of that prison mailbox rule has created considerable discord among lower courts, especially in light of the Court’s subsequent holding in Fex v. Michigan and its adoption of formal procedural rules governing the timing of prisoners’ court filings. This Comment tackles three different issues left unresolved by the Supreme Court. Focusing particularly on the Court’s instructions about when courts should apply a prison mailbox rule, this Comment provides a solution to each of those three issues and then combines those answers into a simple, easy-to-apply framework. The proposed framework provides a step-by-step process for determining whether a prison mailbox rule applies to a particular type of filing by a particular litigant, bringing some much-needed clarity and uniformity to the debate surrounding Houston.

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