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Secular courts

n 1296 Constantinople and other parts of the Empire were seriously damaged by a devastating earthquake. Andronikos II Palaiologos interpreted this as a manifestation of divine wrath aroused by the injustice reigning in the Empire and especially by the corruption of the judges, which caused serious social problems. Thus, in order to appease God, the Emperor set himself to reorganising the system of the administration of justice by establishing, in Constantinople, a supreme court consisting of twelve members - of laymen but also, for the first time, of members of the clergy - all of whom belonged to the senatorial class. These judges swore never to accept bribes and never to be influenced by their personal feelings during the hearing of a case. We do not know much as regards the activity of this court and it would seem that it did not function for a long period of time.

This effort of Andronikos II was resumed by his successor, Andronikos III Palaiologos, a few years later, in 1329, he too believing that the military reverses of the Empire were manifestations of the ire of God over the misdoings of justice. He established in Constantinople a new supreme four-member judicial instrument consisting of two lay and two clerical members, the katholikoi kritai ("universal judges"). The appointment of these judges was always subject to the Patriarchate's approval, in order to avoid any suspicion of partiality, which would be to the detriment of the clerics. They swore to be incorruptible in the performance of their duties, and enjoyed the protection of the Emperor. They were responsible for all the penal and civil cases of the laity, with the exception of those cases that were related to canon law and were of the competence of the Patriarchal Court of Law.

The institution of the katholikoi kritai survived until 1453, and the four judges exercised authority over all the inhabitants of the Empire. At first they all judged together and issued their verdicts in common. However, in order to meet the considerable demands in the dispensation of justice after 1341, every judge was given the right to judge alone. This regulation still did not satisfy these demands, so that after 1345 additional local katholikoi kritai were appointed in other regions of the Empire, such as Thessalonike, Lemnos, Trebizond and the despotate of the Morea.

The judges' jurisdiction extended not only over the ordinary citizens of the Byzantine state, but also over higher officials and members of the imperial family as well. In fact, for the first time the judges had the right and duty to accuse the emperor himself of any illegal act he might commit, and could even continue to accuse him until any illegal decision had been revoked or until the victims of the illegal act had been compensated. This constituted a revolutionary innovation in the history of Byzantine justice, since heretofore the emperor had always been the supreme judge and had been able to enact laws according to his will, without himself being subject to them.