The term ‘kritarchy’, compounded from the Greek words ‘kritès’ (judge) or ‘krito’ (to judge) and ‘archè’ (principle, cause), appears to be coined in 1844 by the English author Robert Southy. In its construction it resembles more familiar political terms such as monarchy, oligarchy and hierarchy. ‘Kritarchy’ is mentioned in among others Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary and the American Collegiate Dictionary. According to its etymological roots, a kritarchy is a political system in which justice (more exactly the judgment that seeks to determine justice) is the ruling principle or first cause.
If ‘monarchy’ denotes rule by one person and ‘oligarchy’ rule by a few, it is tempting to understand ‘kritarchy’ as referring to rule by judges. However, the use of the word ‘rule’ should not mislead us into thinking that the rule of judges is like the rule of monarchs and oligarchs, much less that it is a particular sort of oligarchy. Monarchs and oligarchs aspire to political rule, i.e. the ability and power to enforce obedience to their commands, rules, decisions and choices on their subjects. In short, monarchs and oligarchs rule by a mixture of direct command and legislation. Judges, on the other hand, are supposed not to legislate but to find ways and means to settle conflicts and disputes in a lawful manner. They do not seek to enforce obedience to their commands as such, but respect for law, which is an order of things that is understood to be objectively given and not something that answers to whatever desires or ideals the judges may have.
In contrast with other political systems, where they have been incorporated as magistrates into a system of political rule and empowered to use coercive means to drag citizens and residents before their benches, judges in a kritarchy have no subjects. Monarchs and oligarchs impose, or allow their servants (judges, prosecutors) to impose, their rulings on those of their subjects on which they want to impose them. In other words, they ‘pick’ their subjects (which is the root meaning of the Latin ‘legere’, from which the word ‘lex’ for legislated or statute law is derived). In a kritarchy on the other hand, judges do not choose which persons will appear before them. Instead, people desiring to have their conflicts and disputes resolved by judicial judgment will ‘pick’ their judge.
The distinctive characteristic of a kritarchy is therefore that it is a political system without the institution of political rule. If one thinks of it as ‘the rule of judges’, one should remember that these judges enjoy no particular privileges or special powers. It is ‘the rule of law’, not the rule of legislators, judges or any other category of privileged officials.