MINNEAPOLIS – Susan Richard Nelson wanted to make a difference as an attorney. Do something that mattered.
She mentored disadvantaged students and young female lawyers. She was on a team that took on big tobacco and won. As a magistrate, she earned a reputation for her ability to bring parties together and settle cases.
Now, less than four months into her career as a federal judge, she’s responsible for deciding the fate of the NFL’s lockout and, perhaps, the 2011 season – a daunting task with big-shot lawyers on both sides and billions of dollars at stake.
Those who know Nelson say her short time on the bench won’t matter. They note she has decades of courtroom experience and won’t be rattled by the glare this high-profile case will bring.
“There’s no question she can handle it,” said Michael Ciresi, who worked with Nelson for 16 years and was one of her partners at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. “As a judge, she’s very smart, savvy, respectful … and she’s not afraid to make the tough decisions.”
On Wednesday, lawyers for Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and other NFL players are scheduled to ask Nelson for an injunction to halt the lockout imposed by owners. The players have claimed the lockout is causing them “irreparable harm” and they want it stopped.
Attorneys for the NFL want the lockout to stay in place, saying players manipulated the law when they decertified as a union in mid-March and filed what the league calls a baseless antitrust lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which also has been assigned to Nelson, accuses the league of conspiracy and anticompetitive practices. A trial on those issues could take years, so Nelson’s ruling on the lockout will be key – and it’s the first big decision in the labor fight.
“That’s the real heart of the case,” said Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research. “This decision is really, very important.”
“When you consider the $10 billion that sports fans spend,” he added, “anything they do here is incredibly important as to whether there’s going to be a season or not.”
Nelson’s decision will likely be appealed, so she won’t have the final say. Still, her office is gearing up for Wednesday’s hearing, which has been moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate the expected crush of attorneys and media.
The 58-year-old Nelson is no stranger to the spotlight or to complex cases. The native of Buffalo, N.Y., has 22 years of litigation experience, and from 1994 through 1998 she worked with Ciresi and others in a landmark antitrust case against the tobacco industry – winning a $6.1 billion settlement for the state of Minnesota.
NFL labor matters have been in federal court in Minnesota for years, with most going before Senior U.S. District Judge David Doty. But because of random judicial assignments – and the recusals of two judges who cited conflicts – this one landed before Nelson.
Charlie Nauen, an attorney who has argued cases before Doty and Nelson, said both allow lawyers to “try their case.”