The question before U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Richey is whether The Washington Star's contract with its printers allows the newspaper to go out of business.

The Columbia Typographical Union told the court the contract calls for "no strikes or other interruption of normal employment or production"-thereby, in its view, precluding a management shutdown. If the Star disagrees with this interpretation, the union argued, the contract requires that dispute to go to binding arbitration.

Time Inc., owners of The Star, on the other hand argued that other clauses in the contract clearly allow for management to shut down the newspaper.

Richey has been asked by the printers' union to enter a murky area of labor law-one into which federal judges over the years have been reluctant to get-and issue an order to stop The Star from carrying out its threat to permanently stop publication Monday if all 11 unions fail to agree to new contracts by noon today.

Only the printers and the pressmen have not agreed to new contracts.

In papers filed with Richey, the printers' union argued that The Star's deadline threat was "an economic weapon to compel the union to surrender contract rights."

Richey said Friday he was prepared to rule on the union's request "even though I haven't heard all the evidence," but added he thought it would be better for The Star and the unions to resolve their differences through collective bargaining-intensified by the power and influence of the federal bench and the uncertainty on the part of both sides as to how Richey would rule.

"You obviously are so close, so close that I think you can probably resolve your dispute far better than any court," the judge said.

Court opinions cited by both sides are mixed on the question.

The printers' attorneys looked back at a 1963 opinion that temporarily stopped Greyhound from moving a repair and maintenance shop from Washington to Chicago until a union claim that the shift violated a contract could be arbitrated.

If Greyhound had been allowed to move and then lost the arbitration, the late Judge Alexander Holtzoff said, it might have to "unscramble the omelet," by returning to Washington.

The Star's attorneys argued that "in the unlikely event" the unions win in arbitration, the newspaper could be forced to reopen. But forcing it to stay open until the issue is settled, the attorneys continued, means The Star would lost "huge sums of money" that never could be recovered.

"The simple fact is that an injuction would force [The Star] to continue in a business that, unless negotiations are successful, operates at a drastic loss," the paper's attorneys said. "It would require continued operation of this failing newspaper in a market it cannot hope to succeed in, given its announced intention to cease publication."

Star attorneys cited cases in which unions had failed to get courts to stop the closing of other newspapers and a Brooklyn brewery. In that case judges said the union required "some likelihood of success" in arbitration to win an injunction. Richey will have to keep the question of likelihood in mind if he acts on the current injunction request. CAPTION: Picture, JUDGE CHARLES RICHEY . . . a murky area of labor law