Justice Sotomayor on Sesame Street

By Lisa McElroy

Justice Sotomayor is known for being outgoing and friendly, down-to-earth and approachable.

Even so, it’s not so often that people just walk up to her on the street and ask her to resolve their disputes.

Unless she’s on Sesame Street, that is.

Yes, a couple of weeks ago, preschoolers across America were treated to a guest appearance by none other than the Justice herself, as she sat down to have coffee and chat for a while in Spanish with Maria, a long time “Street” resident. As one of my Facebook friends commented (raising an “Amen” from another), when we were kids in the 1970s and we envisioned a more inclusive America, this is what we imagined.

Now, even though the defendant in the case thought that Justice Sotomayor was “the perfect judge to hear [her] case,” the case before the Justice was one that almost certainly would not have made its way to the Supreme Court. After all, it involved the question of whether Goldilocks should have to fix Baby Bear’s chair after she broke it during her unauthorized entry into the Bear family home. But it resonated on all kinds of levels for the under-four set – from the basic (Shouldn’t we have to fix things if we break them? Shouldn’t people and Muppets and fairy tale characters work together and compromise if they have a disagreement? And shouldn’t every girl carry a bottle of glue in her basket, just in case?) to the more sophisticated (Why do we have rules? What is “justice”? Why do we sometimes need neutral arbiters to help us resolve our disputes?).

Given that most Americans can’t name even one of the nine Justices or any case decided by the United States Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor engaged in a remarkable public service by appearing on the iconic kids’ program. She educated kids and parents alike about what Justices do and why their jobs are important. She oozed intelligence and calm, demonstrating that judges don’t just bang their gavels and act important. She showed people that Justices are regular people who wear ordinary clothes, who hang out with their friends and speak different languages with different accents. And she smiled as she helped each litigant understand the other’s point of view, conveying a message that judges are not scary and intimidating, but thinking, feeling humans who “listen to both sides of the case” (in Sotomayor’s words, that is).

Sure, Justice Sotomayor did have her super-hero-ish moments (as yet another Facebook friend observed), as with her near-instantaneous ability to get her robe on and her lightning-speed decision. And, as Mike emailed me last week, acting wasn’t at the top of her skill set. But, by appearing on Sesame Street, she demonstrated to parents and kids alike that the justice system is accessible and relevant to all, even when the problem is a mundane one, or, as I quoted one final friend in a 2008 article, one that pits property rights against the health and safety of a little girl.