SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court following an opinion issued Tuesday by Maine’s high court, which ruled it violated the rights of two city employees by barring them from running for seats on the school board.

“Because the case involves an issue of federal constitutional law, the city could petition the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case,” read a release sent by City Manager Jim Gailey on Tuesday, shortly after the decision was posted online. “However, because the case was just decided today, no decision has been made on that possibility yet. The City Council plans to meet with the corporation counsel shortly to discuss next steps.”

An hour after the statement was distributed; Mayor Tom Blake was unaware of the ruling.

“Until I can read the opinion, I think I need to withhold comment,” he said.

Karen Callaghan, however, one of the two staffers involved, had heard the news. Callaghan quit her city job in May 2012 and now works at the Scarborough Public Library.

“I was just talking about it today, hoping they would come up with a decision soon,” she said. “I am thrilled.”

Callaghan filed suit against the city Sept. 26, 2011, in Cumberland County Superior Court after being told Sept. 13 that her name could not appear on the November ballot for re-election to an at-large seat on the school board unless she first resigned her job at the circulation desk of the city’s public library.

A longstanding personnel policy bars city employees from holding any municipal elective office in South Portland. On Nov. 15, 2010, that policy was updated to clarify that the elective offices at stake include school board seats, not just positions on the City Council – this after councilors overlooked the policy when appointing Callaghan to fill an unexpired school board term in 2007, or when she won election outright in 2008.

Callaghan was joined in her suit by part-time Parks & Recreation employee Burton Edwards, who said he ran afoul of the policy in December 2010, when he was refused appointment to a vacant seat on the school board. In the meantime, a temporary restraining order allowed Callaghan to collect signatures despite the policy’s prohibition on political activity. She won re-election unopposed with 5,223 votes.

On April 17, 2012, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren upheld Callaghan’s free speech rights to engage in non-partisan political activity as a city employee. A month later, on May 8, 2012, the city appealed the ruling. Oral arguments by both sides were made Dec. 12, 2012, and the Supreme Court issued its ruling Tuesday.

“This decision is a victory for free speech,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “People do not give up their fundamental constitutional rights when they take a government job.”

The 5-1 decision upheld Warren’s ruling on Callaghan and Edwards. However, the court declined to actually strike down the city policy.

“The city is disappointed with the decision, as the city believes the decision does not adequately balance the city’s interest as an employer to promote fair, efficient and effective operations against any First Amendment interests of city-side employees in running for, or serving on, the School Board,” wrote Gailey.

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