PORTLAND — The city of South Portland is taking a legal fight over a policy that bars municipal employees from running for elective office to the state’s highest court.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in the case, which pits the First Amendment political speech rights of municipal employees against the city’s need for efficient and effective government.

Karen Callaghan and Burton Edwards sued the city last year over a change in policy that would have required them to quit their jobs to run for the School Board. Both were on the School Board at the time, and Callaghan was a part-time librarian and Edwards continues to work several hours a week at the Parks and Recreation Department.

Burton decided not to seek re-election. Callaghan was told she could run for re-election in 2011, but could not seek another term after that if she was still employed by the city.

Before 2010, the prohibition on municipal employees running for office was expanded to include the School Board. The ban previously applied to City Council candidacies.

The city notes that the argues that the policy is part of its efforts to disassociate local politics from municipal government operations. The city argues that there is no fundamental constitutional right to run for elective office and that the city’s interest in ensuring an efficient and effective workplace outweighs an employee’s interest in running for the School Board. 

Earlier this year, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled in favor of Callaghan and Edwards. He noted that School Board members have no supervisory authority over municipal employees so there’s no possibility that they could try to use their standing to press them into political activity on their behalf.