ST. LOUIS (AP) The NFL and its locked-out players are back in court.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis is hearing arguments on whether the three-month lockout is legal. The same panel has upheld the lockout twice before, overruling a judge in Minnesota. Its decision this time is considered a key step in the impasse that threatens the 2011 season.

Attorneys for the owners opened the hourlong hearing and the players will get 30 minutes of their own.

Players leader DeMaurice Smith is in the courtroom along with two dozen players, some of them sitting on folding chairs brought in for the crowd.

The lockout was put in effect after talks fell apart March 11 and it’s been in place nearly continuously ever since. The two sides also met in suburban Chicago for three days before the hearing, but no progress was announced.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)