{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

Erna Scheffler – The First Female Judge at the German Federal Constitutional Court

The following is a guest post by Friederike Loebbert, a foreign law intern working with Foreign Law Specialist Jenny Gesley in the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

In honor of Women’s History Month and the 100-year anniversary of women being allowed to practice law in Germany, I thought I would write about Erna Scheffler.

Erna Scheffler was born on September 21, 1893, and, in 1951, became the first female judge on the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht, BVerfG), which is the only federal court with constitutional review power. (Basic Law, arts. 92, 93.) She would be more than pleased to know that as of December 31, 2020, 47.9 % of all judges in Germany were female and that the Federal Constitutional Court currently has a female majority of 9 out of 16 judges. Since 2004, more women than men study law in Germany. When Erna Scheffler started law school in 1911 at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University Breslau (today the University of Wroclaw in Poland), she was the only female student and was mostly ignored by her professors, who kept addressing the auditorium with “dear gentlemen” only. (Jahrbuch Universität Breslau, at 540.) Moreover, at the time she started her law studies, job prospects for women in the legal field were still very limited.

University with bridge, Breslau, Silesia, Germany (i.e., Wroclaw, Poland). Between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.01060.

In Erna Scheffler’s time and today, working as a lawyer, judge, or in another legal position in Germany required passing a first state exam (also called “Referendarexamen”) right after law school and after two more years of practical legal training passing a second state exam (also called “Assessorexamen”). However, even though universities started accepting more and more female students starting in 1908, women were not able to practice law, because they were not allowed to sit for the state exams. (Ende eines Aufbruchs, at 19-20.) This finally changed in 1922, when an act on the admission of women to legal practice was adopted. (Reichsgesetzblatt 1922, I at 573.)

Erna Scheffler belonged to the first generation of female jurists who used this opportunity. After successfully passing the second state exam in 1925, she started her own law firm and, in 1932, became a judge at a local court in Berlin. As I myself will soon complete my legal education with the second state exam this year, I know how much time and effort it involves. It is always the hope to have an interesting and fulfilling career after you finish your studies and training that keeps you going. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Erna Scheffler to be “retired” in 1934, only two years after becoming a judge, when the Nazis came to power. Her “retirement” was based on section 6 of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) of April 7, 1933, which allowed retirements under the very vague condition “to simplify the administration.” (RGBl. 1933, at 175.) According to Nazi ideology, women (and especially women like Erna Scheffler with two Jewish grandparents) did not belong in the judiciary. She was forced to perform menial, occasional jobs, while only receiving a small pension. (Jahrbuch des öffentlichen Rechts, at 262.)

After the Second World War ended, she once again became a judge in Berlin before moving to the Administrative Court in Düsseldorf. When she was selected to serve on the Federal Constitutional Court in 1951, she had already garnered public attention by delivering a speech at the 38th German Jurist Day in 1950, which was met with “enthusiastic applause from the audience.” In an entertaining but still well-thought-out way, she explained to the audience how the law in areas such as citizenship, taxation, or marriage still discriminated against women in a way that needed urgent reform. (Frauen der ersten Stunde, at 159-162.) During her 12 years on the Constitutional Court’s bench, she participated in a series of landmark decisions that all law students still learn about today. She played an important role in shaping the interpretation of constitutional rights in modern German legal studies. (Jahrbuch Universität Breslau, at 569.) Today, she is remembered in particular as an important voice in fulfilling the promise of article 3 paragraph 2 of the German Basic Law (constitution): “Men and women are equal.”

Bundesverfassungsgericht [Federal Constitutional Court]. Sept. 5, 2006. Photo by Flickr user Johannes Bader. Used under CC BY 2.0.


Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Kvennafridagurinn – The Day Icelandic Women Went on Strike

Today, March 8, marks International Women’s Day, a day recognized by the United Nations and celebrated around the world. The day is not the only day women are celebrated – many countries have domestic days designated to honor women. For example, yesterday, Jenny wrote about the Equal Pay Day in Germany, celebrated on March 7. […]

President Biden Nominates Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court

This is a guest post by Jason Zarin, a legal reference specialist at the Law Library of Congress. On Friday, February 25, 2022, President Biden nominated federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Judge Jackson is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for […]

Elizabeth Peratrovich, Civil and Voting Rights Activist

Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit Raven moiety, Lukaax.ádi clan, was born on July 4, 1911, to a Tlingit mother who had to give her up for adoption. She was raised by her adoptive parents, Jean and Andrew Wanamaker, in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Klawock, Alaska. Her parents raised her in a traditional Tlingit lifestyle. Her father, who also […]

On This Day in 1984: Women’s Suffrage in Liechtenstein

On July 1, 1984, women’s suffrage was introduced in Liechtenstein— making it the last European country to do so. Liechtenstein is situated between Switzerland and Austria and has a total of 38,557 inhabitants. In the 1984 national referendum, a slim majority of 2,370 (male) voters (51.3%) approved the right of Liechtenstein women to vote and […]

New Acquisition: Legal Document Signed by Mary Coffin Starbuck of Nantucket and Wunnatuckquannum

Since March is Women’s History Month, we thought it would be a good time to announce that the Law Library has recently acquired a legal document signed by Mary Coffin Starbuck and the Wampanoag Sachem, Wunnatuckquannum. The Law Library’s rare books collection is in principle a collection of printed books, but we also have the […]

Addressing the Gender Gap in Politics: The Case of Germany

In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would write something about political parity laws in Germany. Parity laws aim to counter female underrepresentation in parliament and have recently been enacted or are being discussed in a number of German states. Even though German women gained the right to vote […]

Stunned By Her Thunder: Fannie Lou Hamer

In August 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer decided to attend a mass meeting run by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Ruleville, Mississippi, at William Chapel Church. Mrs. Hamer said, “They talked about how it was our right to vote. And they was talking about how we could vote out people that we didn’t want […]