Academic, judge and sought-after expert—the lawyer and junior professor Anika Klafki.

»You have to find a way to get yourself into the game«

Academic, judge and sought-after expert—a portrait of lawyer Anika Klafki.
Academic, judge and sought-after expert—the lawyer and junior professor Anika Klafki.
Image: Anne Günther (University of Jena)

Prof. Dr Anika Klafki is well-known to many people across Germany: when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused politicians to implement drastic restrictions in 2020, the junior professor and lawyer gave numerous TV interviews and appeared in panel discussions to outline the legal latitude and limitations. With the pandemic now over, Klafki faces a new challenge that again entails considerable responsibility: the position of judge at the Thuringian Constitutional Court.

By Ute Schönfelder

After Anika Klafki and her husband moved to Jena from Hamburg in the autumn of 2019, everything started to move very quickly. She had just been appointed to a Tenure Track Junior Professorship for Public Law, especially Transnational Administrative Law, at the University of Jena. Around that time news began to filter through of an unknown virus causing severe lung disease in China. Although nobody could have expected then that »SARS-CoV-2« would hold the world in its grip for the following three years, Anika Klafki was immediately alarmed. She had already conducted years of research into the topic of pandemics. It soon became clear to her what humanity could be facing.

Anika Klafki had already gained attention in the legal world for her doctoral thesis, entitled »Risiko und Recht« (Risk and Law). Examining legal issues that arise in relation to pandemics, it won Klafki the doctoral thesis prize at Bucerius Law School, where she completed her doctorate. It was also listed as one of the five best law books of the year in 2017. »And that was despite pandemics being an absolute niche topic at the time,« recalls Klafki.

A sought-after expert for media outlets and politicians within weeks

Yet, as the coronavirus pandemic reared its head towards the end of 2019, this niche became a paramount focus of people around the world—and Anika Klafki made a name for herself as a sought-after expert, including beyond her field. Within a matter of weeks, she had become a prominent face in the media, explained Germany’s Infection Protection Act (IfSG) and the legal consequences of COVID restrictions in an array of interviews, contributed to the prime-time TV news programme »Tagesthemen«, appeared on Maybrit Illner’s high-profile talk show and been invited to appear as an expert witness before the German Bundestag and the Thuringian state parliament.

Four years later, in November 2023, Anika Klafki has invited us into her office on the Ernst Abbe Campus. She has made coffee and speaks quickly, as she does not have much time. Klafki informs us that she will have to leave at noon because her two-year-old son is ill and cannot go to day care. She will take over from her husband, who has been on childcare duty that morning.

The current situation of reduced media attention is perfectly acceptable for Klafki. It consumed a substantial amount of her time and energy, which are crucial resources that she must now allocate to her fresh obligations. This is not only concerning her family, but also her new role as a judge at the Thuringian Constitutional Court, which she assumed in 2022 at the young age of 35.

Not satisfied with small steps

Klafki was born in Marburg, Hesse, and spent her childhood moving frequently due to her father's job in development assistance. The family lived in various locations, including Africa, India, Bonn during its time as the German capital, and later in Berlin. Klafki completed her Abitur while residing in Berlin.

Even while she was at school, she never wanted to be anything but a lawyer—even though she wasn’t entirely clear on what exactly a lawyer does. »Somebody told me that lawyers argue a lot and I thought OK, I’m pretty good at that! It sounds like a good job for me,« she remembers, laughing.

Later on, she says, she was primarily focused on finding a profession that focused on high-quality arguments on issues of socio-political relevance. For a long time, she concentrated on human rights and imagined herself working at an international human rights organization or the United Nations. »Then I experienced the UN from within,« says Klafki. She describes returning thoroughly disillusioned from an internship at the German Mission to the United Nations in New York.

»Paper is patient« is her concise summary of the experience. She was dissatisfied to see an armada of well-paid diplomats spending every day tinkering with resolutions and tussling over every last word. »In reality, these texts have next to no impact.« Hardly surprising, she says, because when the entire world comes together, the steps on which everyone can agree are only ever going to be small in scale. For Klafki, these steps are just too small.

Some time later, after completing her first degree, she accepted a position as a research assistant to the Chair led by Prof. Hermann Pünder at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg. She quickly realized where her professional aspirations lay. »I enjoyed the academic work a lot, right from the outset.« She worked as part of a high-performing team that provided wide-ranging encouragement and inspiration.

Klafki began to publish her first papers, visit conferences and hold lectures. She also became active in a network of young lawyers—»Junge Wissenschaft im Öffentlichen Recht e. V.«—and regularly posted articles on current legal policy issues on its platform, »«.

Anika Klafki did not become an expert by chance

During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it was not by chance that Klafki became a highly sought-after expert by media outlets and politicians for insights into the German Infection Protection Act and lockdown restrictions. »I drew attention to myself with targeted blog posts.« After all, neither journalists nor parliamentarians had the time to pore over thick volumes of literature to find suitable specialist advice. »You have to find a way to get yourself into the game.«

It is also not by chance—though perhaps somewhat more surprising—that Klafki later received a call from the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Thuringian state parliament to ask whether she would consider standing for a judgeship at the Thuringian Constitutional Court. The SPD, which Klafki has been a member of since 2005, wanted to nominate a successor to constitutional judge Manfred Baldus, who had recently passed away. »I hadn’t expected it and needed some time to think it over,« she says. She was in the middle of her postdoctoral lecturing qualification at the time. Her interim evaluation was coming up, which she needed to pass in order to turn her junior professorship into a tenured professorship. It is an undertaking that requires considerable commitment to teaching and research. And, of course, she was the mother of a young child.

Yet, her colleagues, friends, and family all encouraged her to seize the opportunity. Klafki put herself forward for selection and secured the necessary two-thirds majority approval in the state parliament, despite the fact that the governing coalition that proposed her did not have a majority in the parliament.

Since her appointment, Klafki has integrated this new challenge into her work schedule. »But it wouldn’t be possible were it not for my husband,« she emphasizes. He is a vital source of support, she says, both on professional matters—given that he is also a judge—and as a husband and father to their son.

Speaking of which, she really does have to look after her soon now—and, suddenly, everything starts moving quickly once again. »I have to go,« she says, her voice friendly yet firm, before grabbing her bicycle helmet and setting off.