A Navy officer faulted in the collision of a U.S. submarine and a South Korean fishing vessel in 1998 has won the right to take his fight to clear his name back to federal court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday said a federal judge could not prevent Cmdr. Charles H. Piersall III from trying to void a nonjudicial punishment against him, according to court records.
In February 1998, Piersall — then a lieutenant commander — was executive officer and command duty officer aboard the USS La Jolla during the collision. The 27-ton fishing trawler sank. All five crewmen were rescued.
In a subsequent proceeding known as a “mast,” the commander of Submarine Group 7 found that Piersall had been “derelict in his duties” in failing to prevent the collision.
Piersall was issued a letter of reprimand, which he appealed unsuccessfully.
He then went to the Board of Correction for Naval Records, claiming that he had the right to reject the mast’s findings because the proceedings were held on dry land, not aboard the USS La Jolla, said Eugene Fidell, a military law expert who represented Piersall.
When the correction board rejected Piersall’s claim, he pursued the matter in federal court.
But the judge tossed the suit. The Navy secretary had argued that Piersall lost the right to pursue the matter in federal court when he failed to request a court-martial before the mast, records say.
The Navy secretary also claimed that civilian courts are prohibited from interfering with the military justice system, but the U.S. Court of Appeals found otherwise and overturned the district court’s ruling.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, which represents the government in this case, declined to comment on the ruling Friday because the case is still pending.
Fidell said that the case will go back to federal district court to be heard by the same judge, Royce C. Lambeth. No date is set.
Fidell called the appellate court’s ruling an important victory for U.S. servicemembers because it allows them to fight correction boards’ decisions in federal court.
“For some people,” he said, “it makes the difference between a successful career and an unsuccessful career.”