A federal judge on Feb. 21 refused the U.S. government's request for its own hearing on how a possible shutdown of BlackBerry e-mail service would affect government employees.

The ruling comes three days before the judge is set to hold a hearing to decide the American future of the BlackBerry.

Patent-holding company NTP sued BlackBerry maker Research In Motion for alleged patent infringement on nine wireless e-mail patents in 2001.

U.S. District Judge James Spencer ruled in favor of NTP in 2003, instructing RIM to halt its sales of BlackBerry devices and services in the United States until NTP's patents run out in 2012.

Spencer stayed the ruling, however, pending appeal.

Since then, the case has gone through failed settlement attempts and several appeals.

After the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Spencer set a hearing date for Feb. 24 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

BlackBerry use is prevalent among U.S. government workers, and the U.S. has filed multiple briefs to Spencer reminding him that the feds won't be happy if he takes away their means of mobile communication.

While he is not letting the U.S. conduct discovery, Spencer has ruled that the U.S. government can at least appear at the Feb. 24 hearing "as it concerns injunctive relief," according to a court docket.

The U.S. Justice Department on Feb. 1 asked Spencer to refrain from an injunction until government workers can be assured that they will be exempted from a possible shutdown.

"We believe that there are still a number of serious questions to be answered as to how an injunction can be implemented so as to continue BlackBerry service for governmental and other excepted groups," the Justice Department said in a legal brief filed to Spencer.

Aware that BlackBerrys are prevalent among Federal employees, NTP has actually requested that the injunction it is seeking should exclude government workers.

But RIM maintains that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep the BlackBerry service running for some customers and not others.

In its own Feb. 1 filing to the court, RIM's lawyers wrote:

"Needless to say, the formidable logistical difficulties presented by having to identify and verify the continuing status of 'excluded or included' users from among the tens of thousands of governmental agencies, government contractors and subcontractors, and other companies and organizations that would be, or should be, exempt are prohibitive."

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