Think of it as two separate football games being played on neighboring fields.

While U.S. District Judge David Doty waits to schedule a hearing on whether the National Football League can spend more than $4 billion to finance its lockout of players, another federal judge will hear players' arguments against the lockout.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson scheduled an April 6 hearing in her St. Paul courtroom on the players' motion for a temporary injunction that would send the players back to work. Nelson was assigned that case Monday.

So at least until that hearing, it's likely that the two continuing fights between the country's most popular professional sports league and its players will be fought on two fronts: in Nelson's St. Paul courtroom and in Doty's Minneapolis digs.

Doty, 81, has supervised the NFL's just-expired collective bargaining agreement with its players for nearly 20 years, ever since the Reggie White case brought more liberal free agency and a salary cap into existence. Several of Doty's rulings have been favorable to the players. In fact, the league once tried to get Doty to end his role in the collective bargaining agreement. The players' union objected and won.

Just two weeks ago, Doty ruled against a special master's decision allowing the league to keep $4 billion in TV-rights revenue -- money that players insist will be used by owners to survive locking out players in 2011. Doty said the NFL breached its agreement with players and plans to schedule a hearing to determine damages, including the possibility of freezing that $4 billion.

The NFL instituted a lockout -- prohibiting players from working out, meeting or practicing with their teams -- after the collective bargaining agreement expired Friday night. The league and players had been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, but talks broke down. Players decertified their union and filed a new suit in federal court alleging that the league's lockout of players is wrong and asking the court to overturn it.

There has been speculation that attorneys for the players would seek to have Doty assigned to the new case as well as oversee the old one. That hasn't happened. Even if it does happen, there is nothing requiring Nelson to give up the case.

U.S. Chief Judge Michael Davis said he cannot talk about specific assignments. But he agreed to explain how the process works.

Federal judges are assigned cases by computer, he said. Cases are randomly divided among Minnesota's seven federal judges and three senior judges. However, judges can remove themselves from cases if they think conflicts exist. The first judge assigned the antitrust case, U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, removed himself for unspecified reasons. The second judge, Patrick Schiltz, also removed himself. As an attorney, he had done some work for the NFL in the past.

Whenever a judge steps off a case, Davis said, the computer reassigns it. On Monday, Nelson got the call.

That does not mean the case will definitely stay with Nelson and not wind up with Doty.

Davis said that if one case is believed to be related to another, a judge can hand it off to the judge in the other case. Judges often do this after talking it over, he said. Also, lawyers could make a motion that the latest antitrust case is related to the case Doty is presiding over.

However, Davis said, the judge who is assigned the case decides whether it is related to another case. So, it's up to Nelson to decide if she wants to give it to Doty. "It is the judge who got the case ... who makes the final decision," Davis said.

Two-court fight

The blogosphere is abuzz with NFL watchers on whether Doty will wind up with the latest case, and what that could mean for the players' suit. Some say that since the players' lead attorney, Barbara Berens, was once a clerk of Doty's, the players have an advantage if the case goes to Doty.

Berens declined to comment on the case Monday. But several area attorneys noted that it is fairly common for attorneys to argue cases before judges for whom they once worked as clerks -- all without a whiff of favoritism or conflict.

So for now, not only is Minnesota the site of a court battle that could determine whether the league and its players will have a 2011 season, but the battle has two fronts, before two judges, in two courtrooms.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428