New York real estate developer Howard Milstein has not ruled out a civil lawsuit against the National Football League over his failed bid to buy the Washington Redskins, his lawyer told a federal judge yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan pressed Milstein's attorney, David Boies, on the subject during a hearing on Milstein's lawsuit alleging John Kent Cooke and Charley Casserly illegally thwarted his bid to buy the team. Since the litigation was filed last May, NFL officials and others involved in the case have watched to see if Milstein sues the league, too.

"If they're going to be defendants, why don't you bring them in?" Sullivan asked, adding it would move the case along. "Maybe the future is now."

"It's a combination of two things," Boies replied. "First of all, it's a question of assessing the factual and legal merits of the case. Second, it's a matter of assessing whether we want to sue the NFL."

The judge kept up his line of questioning. "Because in the future Mr. Milstein might want to do business with the NFL?" he asked.

"Exactly," Boies responded. "The NFL is a very powerful institution. It is one that you don't sue lightly."

That remark was noted immediately by attorneys for Cooke and Casserly, who are trying to maneuver their own clients out of the case. Cooke, the former Redskins' president and son of late owner Jack Kent Cooke, contends the lawsuit must be dismissed because he has moved to Bermuda. Casserly, the former Redskins' general manager, maintains he should be dismissed from the complaint because he was not in a position to keep Milstein out of the NFL.

Milstein's suit alleges Cooke and Casserly unfairly conspired with allies in the NFL to doom his $800 million bid for the team, even though Milstein was the top choice of trustees controlling Jack Kent Cooke's estate. Their goal, according to the suit, was to steer the team to John Kent Cooke.

Milstein withdrew from the bidding process in April when it became clear he would not get the support of enough NFL owners. The suit seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages for Washington Sports Ventures Inc., a New York-based company controlled by Milstein. Daniel M. Snyder, Milstein's former partner who wound up purchasing the team, is not involved in the litigation. Although the NFL was not sued, the suit alleges it created numerous artificial barriers to stymie Milstein.

NFL officials declined to comment on yesterday's developments.

The hearing provided some of the area's most high-profile lawyers with their first opportunity to argue the lawsuit's merits before Sullivan. Boies most recently represented the U.S. government in its antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. Cooke's attorney, Joseph M. Hassett, is a seasoned litigator from the firm of Hogan & Hartson. And Robert S. Bennett, who represents Casserly, defended President Clinton in the Paula Jones civil suit.

Bennett told the judge it was unfair to keep "a working man" like Casserly in a drawn-out fight involving several multimillionaires. "It gets in my craw," Bennett said. "They don't want to sue the NFL, and I'm glad they don't. [Milstein] might want to do business with the NFL, and that's fine. But I represent Mr. Casserly, who is now dragged into this major litigation. . . . He should not have to bear the burden of being in this case if he is nothing more than a pawn to a much larger agenda."

Boies countered that Casserly "played a big role in what went on," saying he was to blame no matter what pressures Cooke put on him. Hassett then protested, saying Cooke denies exerting any such pressure.

The issue of Cooke's residency is the first obstacle Milstein's attorneys must overcome in pursuing the suit. Cooke and his attorneys said he moved from Washington in March, intending not to return. Although he remains a U.S. citizen, Cooke plans to stay in Bermuda indefinitely, according to an affidavit he submitted to the court. His attorneys are arguing the federal court thus has no jurisdiction to decide the contract interference claim.

Sullivan set a Nov. 4 hearing to learn more about Cooke's move and the motivations behind it. Cooke will return to testify, his lawyers said. Although Cooke and Milstein did not attend the hearing, Casserly did and later denied any wrongdoing. He said he was taken aback by the allegations. The longtime advocate of instant replay, which finally returned to the NFL this season, quipped, "If I had that much power in the league, we'd have had instant replay five years ago."