The NFL's motion for an expedited appeal was granted by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, with the date for oral arguments set for June 3 at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis.
The NFL's opening brief is due May 9, with the players' response brief due on May 20, and the league's response to that due May 26.
The case will be heard by Judges Kermit Bye, Steven Colloton and William Duane Benton. Bye, a President Clinton appointee, was the dissenting judge of the three when the NFL was granted a temporary stay of the injunction Judge Susan Nelson granted to lift the NFL lockout. Colloton and Benton are President George W. Bush appointees.
The judges still have yet to rule on the full stay of the injunction, which would allow the owners to maintain the lockout -- keeping players from working out at team complexes, free agents from being signed or trades from happening -- until the judges rule on the appeal.
The order said that on June 3 each side will have 30 minutes to present their oral argument.
This hearing schedule is extremely swift for the 8th Circuit, and the date for oral arguments is one that's not on the normal hearing schedule -- a concession made to move things along. Clerk Michael Gans said that a case taken now "normally wouldn't be heard until October or November and, for a Court of Appeals, that's pretty quick."
Expediting the hearing is all-encompassing, meaning the ruling will be made as quickly as possible -- maybe as early as mid-June. Gans said that when the ruling actually comes is "anyone's guess," but "my understanding is we're giving every aspect of this priority."
The appeals court's approval of an expedited stay gave the NFL at least some relief from the stern rebuke from Nelson.
In denying the NFL's request for a stay, Nelson wrote last week that the league "offered little, if any, evidence to directly rebut" evidence from the players they're being irreparably damaged by the lockout, the key requirement for a decision to lift it.
Nelson also wrote that, without a motion for an expedited appeal, the NFL's argument assuming the 8th Circuit will rule before the 2011 begins "seems unlikely."
Now the league has just that, theoretically allowing more time this summer after the appeals process is completed for talks to resume on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Court-ordered mediation between the two sides is set to resume before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan on May 16, after four days of talks last month and 16 days of federally mediated negotiations earlier this year. Little progress has been reported.
The old CBA expired on March 11, when the players broke up their union to file a federal antitrust lawsuit and the league called the lockout that lasted 45 days until Nelson's order.
The lawsuit against the NFL is still pending before Nelson, but the legality of the lockout has essentially become the fight for now, with both sides arguing over whether Nelson has jurisdiction in the case and over the notion of irreparable harm. That claim has been prominent in nearly every court filing of the last two bizarre, bitter months while the NFL has stumbled through its first work stoppage since the 1987 strike.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking Monday on a conference call with Atlanta Falcons season ticket holders, said the NFL "doesn't need this uncertainty and clearly the fans don't need this uncertainty."
"Hopefully, we can get to the core of the issues, sit down and resolve them," Goodell said.
He added: "We shouldn't be where we are right now. We should address these issues far enough in advance and gotten an agreement that makes sense that can address the issues that I think both sides want to get done."
The first preseason game is scheduled for Aug. 8. Goodell said the NFL does not have a "drop-dead date" for reaching an agreement to avoid missing games.
"Whether they're training camps, minicamps, signing of players, all of that needs to get done sooner rather than later," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.