Chief Justice John Roberts invokes ‘OK, Boomer’ during SCOTUS oral argument

To the surprise and bemusement of many, the Supreme Court echoed with the words “OK, Boomer” on Wednesday, according to the Washington Examiner.

Chief Justice John Roberts invoked the internet meme during oral arguments in a case concerning a federal employee who claimed she was denied promotions because of her age. Roberts was questioning whether use of the phrase, used by young people to dismiss older Americans, would alone count as age discrimination — or if such a rigorous standard would limit the “free expression” of employees to joke around without getting fired.

“So calling somebody a ‘Boomer’ and considering them for a position would be actionable?” Roberts asked, drawing laughter in the room.

Roberts invokes “OK, Boomer”

The case of Babb v. Wilkie was brought by a Veterans Affairs (VA) employee, Norris Babb, who claims her superiors “discriminated against her based on her gender and age” and that her colleagues “subjected her to a hostile work environment.” At issue is whether age needs to be the only factor, or if it can be one of multiple factors, involved in a hiring decision for there to be a finding of illegal discrimination based on age.

Babb’s attorney, Roman Martinez, argued that age discrimination could be found in this case even though age was just one of several factors underpinning his client’s negative experience at the VA, but the VA argued that prejudice based on age must be shown as the only motivating factor in order for such a result to be proper.

The center-right Roberts, known as the court’s swing judge, pressed Martinez on the point with a jocular nod to young Americans who mock their elders on social media.

“The hiring person, who’s younger, says, ‘OK, Boomer,’ once to the applicant,” he said, painting a hypothetical scenario and asking if that was “actionable.” Martinez responded that it “absolutely would be actionable” to call someone a “Boomer” while considering them for a position if age was a factor in their adverse hiring decision, but Roberts expressed concern about the potential conflict between such a standard and the right to free speech.

“I’m just wondering if your position is going to become a really just a regulation of speech in the workplace,” Roberts said.

Generational split over joke phrase

“OK, Boomer” has become a derisive phrase among younger Americans on social media to refer to middle-aged Americans born between 1946 and 1965, also known as baby boomers. Some “Boomers” have responded to the internet meme with “OK, Millennial,” although a younger age cohort, Generation Z, also uses the phrase.

This is the first time “OK, Boomer” was uttered in the hallowed halls of the court, according to Fox News. A young lawmaker in New Zealand went viral in November for using the phrase derisively in reference to an older MP who heckled her during a speech on climate change.

After considering the legal implications of “OK, Boomer” on Wednesday, Roberts assumed his role in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump by swearing in senators Thursday afternoon. The trial is expected to test his ability to stay above the fray, an increasingly difficult challenge for Supreme Court justices in a time of hyper-partisanship.

A final ruling in the Babb case will come in the spring, according to USA Today.

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