English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I just read an article about aided suicide on Toronto Star which mentioned B.C. supreme court and Canada's highest court.

Do supreme court and highest court mean the same thing? The different modifiers (B.C. and Canada) preceding them just add to the difficulty of distinguishing them. If so, why didn't the author keep it consistent by using the same term?

share|improve this question
Every country has some kind of "court of ultimate authority". It's just that the American one has always been called The Supreme Court. – FumbleFingers Nov 14 '11 at 20:44
@FumbleFingers There are a lot of nations that have models where there's no single court of last resort. Countries that follow the civil law or those under 'Austrian model' do not have a single court of last resort in the same way we do here. They may have separate 'supreme' courts for civil vs criminal cases, or for administrative vs constitutional matters. And sometimes there is a court of last resort that has limited scope, like the French Court of Cassation. – Mark Beadles Dec 24 '11 at 17:53
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Typically, the term Supreme Court would be capitalized and refer to a specific body - it's a proper noun.

The second phrase, highest court, is not a proper noun; it simply refers to the highest ranking court in a country. (In the US, the highest court is the Supreme Court.)

share|improve this answer
Note that in Australia, the High Court is the actual name of the highest court and is capitalized in that case. – Mark Beadles Dec 24 '11 at 17:48

The political division qualifier is the critical aspect here. In "B.C. supreme court", British Columbia is the area of jurisdiction, whereas in "Canada's highest court", Canada is the jurisdiction. Since British Columbia is smaller than Canada as a whole, the two names cannot refer to the same court. That should help, not hinder, distinguishing that two different courts are being referred to.

Supreme may seem to have an obvious meaning, but this is a legal system and sometimes the seemingly obvious is wrong in that context. In the New York State court system, for example, a Supreme Court is two levels below the state's highest court (which is known as the "Court of Appeals").

share|improve this answer
+1 for including the point about New York, where the Supreme Court has an entirely different meaning than everywhere else! – Mark Beadles Dec 24 '11 at 17:54

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.