487 U. S. 266
June 24, 1988
A prisoner without a lawyer mailed off a Habeas appeal. Although he put it in the prison mail three days early, it arrived at the clerk’s office one day late. Under the Habeas jurisdiction statute, the 30 day filing deadline for an appeal was completely mandatory. In a desperate bid to save his appeal, the prisoner, Prentiss Houston, argued that the appeal should be considered filed when placed in the prison’s mail.
The Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 vote. Brennan said that the word “filed” was slightly ambiguous – just ambiguous enough to allow a new rule that placing an appeal in the prison mail system constituted filing. Brennan stressed that in non-prison contexts, the standard rule of the appeal needing to reach the clerk’s office still applied. This special rule was necessary because a prisoner without a lawyer has no way to take extra precautions, and has to trust everything to the prison mailbox.
Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Kennedy, dissented. He said what everyone really knew: that “filed” meant filed in the clerk’s office, and that Brennan’s plea of ambiguity fooled no one. He felt Brennan was especially going rogue in making “filed” have a different definition solely for the prison system. Scalia contended that the word ought to have just one meaning. He also rejected some additional arguments put forth by Houston that the majority did not address. His answer to all of them was essentially ‘rules are rules.’ Scalia noted that the Supreme Court itself had the power to change this particular rule, and should have done so rather than resort to an activist judicial ruling.
So, let’s be honest, this ruling was blatant activism. And yet, I’m finding it absolutely impossible to get angry at the majority. As Charles Dickens once wrote, here’s an instance where “the law is a ass.” Scalia’s dissent is obviously correct on the merits, but it’s really missing some empathy in its tone.