AUGUSTA (AP) – A federal appeals court has ruled that the Maine State Employees Association can charge a service fee to nonmembers.

Twenty state employees had gone to court to challenge the fee, saying collection of the fee violated their constitutional and civil rights.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in April 2006 that the union followed the law when it implemented a service fee and required all state workers to join the union or pay a portion of the dues.

The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which rejected their arguments in a decision released Wednesday.

Tim Belcher, the executive director of the state employees union, said the organization had been respectful of the rights of nonmembers and was pleased with the decision.

“We knew all along we were in a very strong position,” Belcher said.

The union counts about 10,000 people as members and says 1,000 others pay a service fee, which is roughly half of the membership cost. Some 500 state employees eligible for membership have paid neither dues nor a service fee.

A lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which helped represent the 20 employees who sued, said no decision had been made about a further appeal.

W. James Young said he was inclined to follow up on comments by U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, who in a concurring opinion wrote: “A great many resources have been spent thus far on the issue here and elsewhere. Decision of this issue by the Supreme Court would provide needed clarity.”

Daniel P. Locke and 19 other state employees sued the state and the Maine State Employees Association, arguing in part that the practice of charging and collecting service fees from nonmembers of the union violated the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

If filed, an appeal from the First Circuit decision would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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