Sonia Sotomayor, left, and Theodore Shaw, right.
Sonia Sotomayor, left, and Theodore Shaw, right. (Photo: American Constitution Society.)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor voiced concern Thursday night about widespread income inequality in America, which she said could trigger “the unrest other countries have.”

Sotomayor made the comment in a spirited on-stage conversation with civil rights leader Theodore Shaw—a high school classmate of hers—at the annual convention of the American Constitution Society in Washington.

Shaw, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and now a professor at Columbia Law School, reflected on the fact that, decades ago, they both moved from poverty growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., to Ivy League educations and successful careers. Now, Shaw said, “We’re losing that class mobility … across the board.” He said it was “one of the most, if not the most, challenging issues of the 21st century.”

Sotomayor agreed. “With the rising cost of education, there’s a lot more of kids … across the spectrum who no longer have the hope to attend the schools we did.” She added: “As the wealth difference grows, we’re going to see, I suspect, many of the problems other countries have, the unrest other countries have.”

Sotomayor and Shaw were in the class of 1972 at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, a Catholic school that Shaw said was “both my salvation and my damnation.” He received a very good education, he said, but added jokingly, “Once you get those nuns in your head, you never get them out.”

Sotomayor displayed her high school yearbook, with photos of her and Shaw on the same page. “You were at the top of our class,” Shaw told the justice. “I was somewhere else.”

Whatever their respective academic records were, Sotomayor went on to Princeton University, then Yale Law School. Shaw graduated from Wesleyan University, then Columbia Law School. Next month, Shaw will become director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Shaw asked Sotomayor about her current job on the high court. Sounding nostalgic about her life in New York, she said being on the high court was “much tougher at the very beginning—being wrestled from job I loved and a city I grew up and adored.”

As she has before, Sotomayor also lamented her loss of privacy and the different way others relate to her now.

“People stop treating you like a person,” she said. “That becomes very hard for somebody like me who really likes people and wants to have living room conversations that are not reported on Twitter, and not reported on Facebook.”

Asked about separating her own views and upbringing from the task of deciding cases, Sotomayor offered an example of “how our own experiences influence you.”

At a recent oral argument, she said, a colleague was incredulous that anyone would carry multiple cellphones at the same time. “This was in a room full of government lawyers who all have two cellphones,” she said, laughing.

Though she did not name names, she was referring to comments made by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia during April 29 oral arguments in cases involving police searches of the contents of suspects’ cellphones.

It is important, Sotomayor said, “to have people with different life experiences” on the court.

“We have to sort of correct each other’s misimpressions,” she said.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com. On Twitter: @Tonymauro.