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Kritarchy, also called kritocracy, was the system of rule by Biblical judges (Hebrew: שופטים, shoftim) in the tribal confederacy of ancient Israel during the period of time described in the Book of Judges, following Joshua's conquest of Canaan and prior to the united monarchy under Saul.[1][2]

Because the name is a compound of the Greek words κριτής, krites ("judge") and ἄρχω, árkhō ("to rule"), its colloquial use has expanded to cover rule by judges in the modern sense as well. To contrast such a rule by (modern) judges with the actual form of the (then) new 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, judge Albie Sachs coined the term dikastocracy for it, from δικαστής ("judge"), rejecting the coinage "juristocracy" for being an admixture of Latin and Greek.[3]



by contrast to an extant systemEdit

Sachs and others rejected the idea that the Constitutional Court of South Africa, on which he sat, was a dikastocracy; using the name to denote what they asserted the Court not to be.[4] It was used in a 1996 Court opinion rejecting the "horizontal" application (i.e. between citizens as opposed to "vertical" application between citizens and the government) of the RSA constitution's Bill of Rights; warning that "horizontal" application would turn the republic into such a dikastocracy.[5]

Others have similarly used this as an inverse definition, to denote what they assert their form of government is not. Supreme Court of the United States justice Stanley Forman Reed, the last dissentor to be convinced in the decision on Brown v. Board of Education used kritarchy as the name for the judicial activism that he initially dissented from, asking his clerk (John Fassett) who argued with the direction to write a dissenting opinion whether he (Fassett) favoured a kritarchy.[6][7] Fassett was unfamiliar with the word, and Reed told him to look it up.[6][7] Fassett could not find it in several dictionaries, finally locating it in the Oxford English Dictionary.[6][7]

according to van NottenEdit

This form of rule (in the non-Biblical sense) is the case of Somalia, ruled by judges with the polycentric legal tradition of xeer.[8] The definition employed by Michael van Notten (based upon on one by Frank van Dun[9][page needed]) is not, strictly, that of rule by judges, judges not being a formal political class but rather people selected at random to perform that task ad hoc; but rather is that of a legal and political system whose closest analogue in other societies is that of a system based entirely upon customary rather than statutory law.[10] Van Notten himself argues that, with a few exceptions, the system of government which he denotes a kritarchy is "harmonious with the concept of natural law" and "very close to what in philosophy might be called 'the natural order of human beings'".[10]

Historic examplesEdit

Ireland had a system of kritarchy from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE under the Brehon Law, the Brehons being the class of Druid Judges.[11][12] A kritarchy system was also present in medieval Ireland until the 13th century.[13][page needed]

The Icelandic Commonwealth between the 9th and 13th century has been labelled as a kritarchy by David D. Friedman and Einar Olgeirsson.[14][page needed][15]

Frisia in the 16th century had a system of kritarchy.[13][page needed]

In popular cultureEdit



  1. ^ Zettler 1978, p. 84.
  2. ^ Hellweg 1993, p. 71.
  3. ^ Cornell & van Marle 2014, p. 90.
  4. ^ Bizos 2011, pp. 905–906.
  5. ^ Jeffery 2010, p. 49.
  6. ^ a b c Roberts & Stratton Jr. 1997, p. 43.
  7. ^ a b c SCOTUS 1980, p. 38.
  8. ^ MacCallum 1998.
  9. ^ van Notten 2005, p. 73.
  10. ^ a b Tobin 2014, p. 73.
  11. ^ "University of Pennsylvania Law Review". Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  12. ^ IC 2017.
  13. ^ a b van Notten 2005.
  14. ^ Friedman 1979.
  15. ^ Olgeirsson 1971, p. 44.

Reference bibliographyEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Ayittey, George (2006). Indigenous African Institutions: 2nd Edition (2nd ed.). BRILL. pp. 120–123, 305–310. ISBN 9789047440031.