Maine’s top court has ruled that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was wrong to deny food stamp benefits to asylum seekers who had been cleared to work but had yet to find a job.

In a 13-page decision issued Tuesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Euphrem Manirakiza, a Burundian immigrant who sued the state after he applied for benefits in 2015 and was then denied.

Another applicant who was denied, Fatima Nkembi, also sued and her case was combined with Manirakiza’s but the decision could affect as many as 150 other asylum seekers who also were denied benefits.

Amy Olfene, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that after the application was denied at both the departmental level and in Superior Court, she wasn’t overly optimistic.

“We talked about whether this was worth our time, but we really felt strongly that the executive was overstepping its bounds and this was worth going to Law Court over,” she said. “We’re really happy that we did.”

The case hinged on language included in the 2014-15 biennial budget that provided funding for public assistance programs for asylees who have obtained proper work documents – a process that can take months or even years – but who have not yet found work.

The specific budget line in question was, “If the funding limit is met prior to June 2015, legal non-citizens with work documentation are no longer eligible for the hardship exemption.”

The Law Court heard oral arguments in November from Olfene and Assistant Attorney General Thomas Quinn, representing DHHS.

Quinn argued that DHHS denied the plaintiff benefits because it believed the budget language ended the food stamp program for that subset of immigrants.

Olfene, however, countered that the line meant only that if or when the allocated money – about $250,000 – ran out, that group would have to wait until the next budget cycle.

She also said, by law, the state cannot simply deny benefits to those who are eligible, even if the funds did run out.

The court sided with Olfene.

“There is no indication that the Legislature also intended for those eligible to be eligible only for a limited time or only until the predetermined funding limit was met,” the decision read. “The opposite appears to be true.”

Quinn did not return a message for comment.

The landmark federal welfare reform act of 1996 that shaped two major public assistance programs – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – prohibits certain categories of immigrants from obtaining those benefits. Several states, including Maine, have passed laws that allow state funds to be used to provide food stamps or TANF to asylum seekers who are otherwise eligible for the programs.

The state statute that allows this outlines four categories of legal non-citizens: elderly or disabled; victims of domestic violence; those who have not yet obtained work documentation; and those who have obtained work documentation but are unemployed.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage and some of his allies in the Legislature have sought repeatedly to eliminate state funding for these programs but have not been successful. The debate over providing public assistance to legal immigrants who are not yet U.S. citizens has played out nationally as well.

The dispute over the language in that particular budget highlights how lawmakers – and governors’ administrations – often use budgets to enact complex or controversial policy changes.

“We can see that through the legislative history that this provision was part of a negotiation,” Olfene said. “But I think the decision is a reminder that we have three branches of government.”

The Law Court’s decision means that the case will be sent back to Superior Court. Only asylum seekers who appealed a denial of benefits will be eligible for retroactive payment, Olfene said.