The administration of Gov. Paul LePage is seeking to have a lawsuit challenging his efforts to cut municipal welfare benefits moved to federal court.

The Maine Municipal Association and two cities filed the lawsuit in the Cumberland County Superior Court last month. It challenges the administration’s directive that municipalities not provide General Assistance benefits to immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

The lawsuit asks the court to find that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services failed to follow the proper rule-making process in June when it instructed municipalities to stop providing assistance to non-citizens who were “not lawfully present” – a phrase that applies to asylum seekers and immigrants with expired visas.

The cities of Portland and Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association are asking for an expedited hearing as they try to block DHHS from enforcing the controversial policy, which the LePage administration insists is required under a 1996 federal welfare reform law. Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills has openly disputed the administration’s legal interpretation.

The Republican governor’s office on Friday filed a notice of removal in U.S. District Court in Portland to have the lawsuit moved from the state court to federal court. His office said that’s the best place for the lawsuit since federal issues are involved.

Normally, the Maine Attorney General’s Office would represent the state in such a lawsuit, but in this case the LePage administration has hired a private attorney – Clifford Ruprecht of the Portland law firm Roach Hewitt Ruprecht Sanchez & Bischoff – to represent the state.

Ruprecht did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Peter DeTroy, the attorney for the Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook in the lawsuit, said it is “unusual” that the state wouldn’t be represented by the attorney general’s office in a lawsuit.

“It’s fairly political, to put it mildly. So I think they felt it was appropriate to use outside counsel,” DeTroy said.

DeTroy said he has not yet decided whether to oppose the administration’s move and try to keep the case in state court. He has until Aug. 8 to file a response, according to a deadline set by U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr.

“We believe the complaint we have filed as narrowly crafted to deal with state law issues is a matter that should and could be handled in state court, but whether we decide to oppose will depend on our analysis of why they have filed (to have the case moved to federal court),” DeTroy said.

He said he does not believe moving the case from a state to a federal venue would broaden the implication of the lawsuit to a national level, since it deals specifically with a question of Maine law, though the state law is brought into question by a federal statute.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.