Sara Mathilde Soffel was the first woman to be a county judge in Pennsylvania.
The day she was sworn in and donned a black robe — Aug. 27, 1930 — proved to be memorable for two reasons.
While Miss Soffel was making history and greeting well-wishers in the fifth floor assignment room of the Allegheny County Courthouse, shots rang out in the fifth floor probation office, located diagonally opposite from the assignment room.
The shooter was Clara Palschak, a 21-year-old woman who claimed that her 24-year-old husband, Steve, had deserted her for three weeks and refused to return. Using her husband’s gun, she fired three bullets into his abdomen and he died soon afterward. A front page headline in The Pittsburgh Press read, “Gunfire Startles Attendants While Miss Soffel Is Sworn as Judge.”
Judge Soffel’s successful legal career was spurred partly by her German immigrant father, Jacob, a realtor and court tipstaff who expected his children to excel and whose accounts of courtroom dramas fascinated his daughter. Miss Soffel attended Wellesley, where she earned a “W” as left wing on the field hockey team and graduated in 1908.
When she told her father she wanted to study law, he handed her a legal text called Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” She found work teaching at Crafton High School and Schenley High School.
She was the first woman to complete her entire legal education at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1916, Miss Soffel graduated at the top of her law school class, a distinction that normally carried with it a cash prize and a job on the faculty as an assistant instructor. But she only received the cash prize.
Despite her achievements, no local law firm would hire her. In 1917, she set up a law practice and learned how to type and write shorthand so she could do her own clerical work. From 1922 to 1925, she was the first woman to serve as an assistant city solicitor.
Pennsylvania Gov. John Fisher appointed her to the local county court in 1930. A year later, she ran for a 10-year term and was elected. She won re-election again in 1941 and 1951, then retired from the bench in 1962.
Judge Soffel, who died in 1976 at the age of 89, loved the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, fishing, music and roses. The rambling, Victorian-era home where she grew up still stands at 16 Greenbush Street atop Mount Washington.
Here at The Digs, we think a state historical marker should be installed near that property so more people learn the inspiring story of one of Pennsylvania’s honorable legal pioneers.