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.
After winning that case, she told the Minnesota Women's Press newspaper: "You hope in your career that you have an opportunity to do something that matters, that makes a difference. Something that matters takes all you can give.''
In 2000, federal judges in Minnesota unanimously chose Nelson to be a federal magistrate. She had that job for 10 years, conducting a wide range of civil and criminal proceedings to help move cases along.
She handled evidentiary issues in cases related to the investigation of men who traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to possibly join a terror group. She also was on the bench for a handful of trials and gained a reputation as a successful mediator.
She was asked about her mediation skills last May when the Senate Judiciary Committee interviewed her for the position on the federal bench.
"To be a good settlement judge, a magistrate judge has to gain the respect and rapport of both sides, because once you lose the respect or rapport of one side, they won't engage in the settlement process,'' she said, according to the transcript. "So I think it requires certain skills, but most importantly that the parties do trust you and respect your judgment on assessing the strength of their cases.''
She told the committee she was most proud of a settlement reached in a "very emotional case'' between Guidant and workers who claimed layoffs had a disparate impact on older employees.
Nelson is married to an attorney and has two adult sons. She graduated with high honors from Oberlin College in 1974 and earned her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1978. She entered private practice and began working in Minnesota in 1984.
Before she became a federal magistrate, she made a few political contributions to federal Democratic candidates, including former President Clinton, and Ciresi, who ran for Senate. Regarded by her friends as well-rounded and fun, Nelson plays the cello, enjoys going for walks, and likes sporting events as much as a night at the theater or orchestra.
She was an avid fan when her two sons were playing baseball in high school and college.
She also has a good sense of humor.
She showed sparks of personality during her nomination process: drawing laughs when she joked about her "judgment'' in letting her college-age son miss his finals to attend the hearing. Yet she also spoke seriously about the importance of impartiality, equal access to justice for everyone and her work mentoring disadvantaged students.
"I always promised myself that if I enjoyed some success in this profession, that I would turn around and provide mentorship to those who also didn't have mentors in their lives,'' she said. "I believe it gives everybody a sense that they can do what they dream of.''
Annamarie Daley, a local attorney and good friend of Nelson's, said the judge is a "master'' at organization. And while she hasn't been a federal judge long, Daley said, Nelson made the transition easily after a decade as a magistrate.
NFL labor matters have been in federal court in Minnesota for years, with most going before Senior U.S. District Judge David Doty. But due to random judicial assignments - and the recusals of two judges who cited conflicts - this one landed before Nelson.
Doty and Nelson have some similarities: they worked for big law firms, have backgrounds in complex civil litigation, and are known for making decisions based on the law.
Charlie Nauen, an attorney who has argued cases before Doty and Nelson, said both allow lawyers to "try their case.''
"They are both federal judges and they are in charge of their courtroom, but that said, they allow a trial lawyer to put her or his case in, as opposed to some judges who get more involved,'' he said. "... They both are good to practice in front of, and win or lose, you feel like you got a fair shake.''
Nelson has handled NFL issues before. As a magistrate, she helped with settlement negotiations in a case filed by retired NFL players, who claimed the league was exploiting their images to promote the league and NFL memorabilia without paying them. The case was transferred once Nelson became a judge and is still pending.
"Her style is very congenial, but she can be very firm if challenged,'' said David Lillihaug, a former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. "She's very smart. There will be no argument that is too complex for her to unravel.''