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ProPublica Files Complaint and Emergency Motion to Release Court Records in High-Profile Ship Fire Case

Update, May 3, 2024: Since this story was published, the Navy released documents regarding the Mays case in October and November and additional documents related to the case in March and June. ProPublica continues to seek changes in the Navy’s policies regarding access to court proceedings and related records to ensure timely and meaningful public access.

Today, ProPublica filed a complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the U.S. Navy from continuing to withhold military court records and docket information filed in the United States v. Mays case. Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays’ court-martial trial is currently underway on the San Diego Naval Base and is expected to conclude later this week.

In “The Navy Accused Him of Arson. Its Own Investigation Showed Widespread Safety Failures,” ProPublica examined details of the Mays case, where a sailor has been accused of aggravated arson and hazarding a vehicle in the 2020 fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard. After the fire, investigators uncovered in exhaustive detail an astonishing array of failures — broken or missing fire hoses, poorly trained sailors, improperly stored hazardous material — that had primed the ship for a calamitous fire.

The Navy and a military judge have refused to release records in the case, citing Article 140a of the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as a memo issued by the former Defense Department general counsel and Navy instructions interpreting that guidance. ProPublica’s complaint and motion, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, contend that the Navy and military court judge in the case are violating the public’s and ProPublica’s First Amendment and common law rights to court proceedings and records. The records have been discussed extensively in open court and are not classified, under seal, or otherwise restricted. Additionally, ProPublica argues that the Navy has misinterpreted Article 140a, noting that Congress adopted it in 2016 to promote transparency in the military courts and to enhance public access to court records and docket information at every stage of court-martial proceedings.

“Withholding these records from the public while they are timely and newsworthy is government-imposed censorship that deprives the press and public of information they need to meaningfully understand these proceedings as they happen and to assess whether justice is ultimately done,” said Michael H. Dore, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, representing ProPublica. He added, “We are honored to represent ProPublica in this important matter and are hopeful this lawsuit will vindicate the rights of the public and ProPublica to access non-classified records in court-martial proceedings.”

ProPublica is represented by Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., Michael H. Dore, Jillian London and Marissa Mulligan of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, as well as ProPublica Deputy General Counsel Sarah Matthews.

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