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70th Anniversary of the German Federal Court of Justice

This month, the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof, BGH)—Germany’s supreme court for civil and criminal cases—is celebrating its 70th anniversary. It was established on October 1, 1950, and immediately started hearing cases as it took over the case files from the German Supreme Court for the British Zone (Oberster Gerichtshof für die Britische Zone, OGH). The formal opening ceremony was held on October 8, 1950. Its main seat is in Karlsruhe; however, two of the judicial panels for criminal law (called “Senat” in German) are located in Leipzig.

German Federal Court of Justice Building in Karlsruhe. Photo by Joe Miletzki.

Jurisdiction and Organization 

In Germany, ordinary jurisdiction, meaning jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, is exercised by state and federal courts (local district courts, regional courts, higher regional courts, and the Federal Court of Justice). (Courts Constitution Act, § 12.) Civil cases start at the local or regional court, which generally depends on the value of the claim. (Id. §§ 23, 23a, 71.) The assignment of criminal cases is based on the severity of the crime. (Id. §§ 24, 74.) The cases can be appealed to the regional or higher regional court, respectively. (Id. §§ 72, 73, 119, 121.) The Federal Court of Justice is the highest court and deals with appeals on questions of law only. (Id. §§ 133, 135.) Even though Germany is a civil law country and decisions are only binding on the parties in the case, decisions from the Federal Court of Justice de facto act as precedents and are followed by the lower courts.

The Federal Court of Justice has 12 civil law panels and five criminal law panels. The civil law panels are organized by type of dispute, for example banking law, whereas the criminal law panels are generally in charge of appeals from a certain region in Germany. As an exception, three out of the five criminal panels also have jurisdiction over specific areas of the law, in particular tax and customs offenses, military criminal cases, and national defense transgression (1st panel); crimes against the state (3rd panel); and road traffic cases (4th panel).

Selection of Judges

The judges at the Federal Court of Justice are selected by the Judges Election Committee. (Richterwahlgesetz, § 1.) The Judges Election Committee is convened by the federal minister of justice. It is composed of a total of 32 members and consists of the ministers of justice of the 16 German states and 16 members selected by the German Bundestag (parliament). (Basic Law, art. 95, para. 2).

The members must maintain confidentiality during the selection process. (Richterwahlgesetz, § 6, para. 2). The proceedings are not public and votes are cast in a secret ballot. Whoever receives a majority of the votes is elected and subsequently appointed by the federal president. (Id. §§ 12, 13.) The position is a lifetime appointment. (German Judiciary Act, §§ 8, 10.) In July 2020, ten new judges were selected to serve at the Federal Court of Justice, five women and five men. Currently, there are 152 judges at the court, including 17 presiding judges. In 2014, Bettina Limperg was appointed as president of the Federal Court of Justice. She is the first woman to hold this position.

Further Information

The Federal Court of Justice offers a bilingual brochure for download on its website.

Furthermore, the Law Library of Congress holds numerous materials on German law in general, including commentaries on the German Basic Law and the German Court Constitution Act and the decisions of the Federal Court of Justice in civil matters and in criminal matters.

A recent multinational Law Library report on Virtual Civil Trials might also be of interest. The report surveys the law of 25 foreign jurisdictions, including Germany, on the availability and functioning of virtual civil hearings and/or trials, including the structure of civil court systems and arrangements made to ensure the continuation of hearings and proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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