Supreme Court Justice Randy Grant Pierce canceled oral arguments that had been scheduled for the case on April 10. That means justices won't hear live testimony from attorneys on either side of the issue and instead will rule based solely on written briefs.
The move came just days after Tupelo opposed a prior request by Lee County to postpone oral arguments because of scheduling conflicts.
"In an effort to proceed with this case in a timely manner," Pierce wrote in his order, "this court finds that the oral arguments should be canceled and the motion to re-set oral arguments is not well-taken and should be denied."
Attorneys on both sides said this likely means a quicker ruling than previously anticipated.
"We think it's a good signal that we should be receiving final action from the court in a more timely manner than if we had to proceed with the oral argument," said city attorney Guy Mitchell.
Saltillo attorney Jason Herring echoed those comments, but Lee County attorney Gary Carnathan said it won't change the timeline either way.
A decision is expected sometime this year.
None of the attorneys would speculate on the outcome of the four-year-old case or whether the cancellation of oral arguments could help or hinder their chances of a favorable ruling.
Tupelo had filed a petition in April 2008 to annex some 16 square miles of unincorporated land from five areas adjacent to its existing border. It would affect an estimated 2,500 residents.
But the bid was opposed by Lee County, Saltillo, Plantersville and several fire-protection districts whose attorneys fought the case two years ago in chancery court. After a weeks-long trial and a months-long wait, Chancellor Edward C. Prisock ultimately ruled in Tupelo's favor, issuing his decision in late November 2010.
Opponents appealed to the state Supreme Court one month later based largely on four factors where they claimed the judge erred: the court's jurisdiction to hear the case; the credibility of the city's expert witness; the potential for double-taxation to annexed residents for fire protection; and the legitimacy of the city's services-and-facilities plan, which it would implement if annexation is successful.
It will cost Tupelo about $25 million over the next five years to fully implement services and facilities to the newly annexed areas.
Costs include hiring five new public works employees, four new police officers, three new firefighters, one new building inspector and extending water, sewer, street lights and other services to the new areas.
If the higher court upholds Prisock's ruling, the city will be able to annex 30 days after its decision.