In a setback for Sonics owners, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled today that Seattle's lawsuit seeking to enforce the team's KeyArena...

In a setback for Sonics owners, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled today that Seattle’s lawsuit seeking to enforce the team’s KeyArena lease should remain in federal court.

Team owners had sought to send the case to binding arbitration in an effort to leave KeyArena before the lease ends in September 2010.

In his written ruling this afternoon, Martinez agreed with the city that the dispute revolves around the essential term or length of the lease. He called the Sonics’ owners arguments to the contrary “as errant as a typical Shaquille O’Neal free throw.”

Martinez did not rule on the underlying issue in the lawsuit — whether the Sonics should be allowed to pay the city to leave KeyArena early. That dispute will now be fought in federal court.

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The ruling could delay efforts by team owners to relocate the Sonics and Storm to Oklahoma City.

Principal team owner Clay Bennett has said he’ll file with the NBA for permission to move the teams after this season unless he gets an arena deal by Wednesday.

But the federal court process is likely to move much slower than arbitration, which Sonics attorneys said could have been wrapped up by the end of March.

A spokesman for the Sonics had no immediate comment this afternoon.

City Attorney Tom Carr said the city likely will seek depositions and other evidence as part of the discovery process in the case.

“We’ll want some time. I assume the Sonics will want this decided tomorrow,” Carr said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com