Income inequality comes to Supreme Court, courtesy Justice Sotomayor

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WASHINGTON - Income inequality has come to the U.S. Supreme Court, at least in an informal way, courtesy of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And she's worried about its negative impact not only on the U.S. now, but on future generations.

The justice's thoughts came during a "living room chat" as the featured dinner speaker during the June 19 American Constitution Society convention in D.C.  ACS,  a group of progressive - and pro-worker - lawyers and law students, sat Sotomayor down for the "chat," before 500 or so people, with her old Bronx friend/high-school classmate, Ted Shaw.

The easy back-and-forth started with them telling stories of how they grew up poor in public housing projects in the Bronx, and how that shaped their lives.  Sotomayor set the tone by holding up their Cardinal Spellman High School senior yearbook - with pictures of both Shaw and her on the same page. 

And Sotomayor said "her epiphany" about the law came when she watched Perry Mason on TV: "I want to be him," she said, pointing to the judge who ruled on Mason's cases. The crowd laughed.  "Law is a way of dealing with each other as a society," she explained.

But their banter occasionally veered into specific subjects, though not pending  Supreme Court decisions, since Sotomayor couldn't talk about them.  One was income inequality.  Shaw, a top New York NAACP attorney who will head a civil rights institute at the University of North Carolina, started it.  "We're losing class mobility," he told his old classmate.

"We're going backwards," Sotomayor replied.  The education that she received, at Cardinal Spellman, then an undergraduate degree at Princeton and at Yale Law School - on scholarships - will be unavailable to elementary and high school kids she meets now, she said.

"With the rising costs of education, there are a lot of kids across the spectrum who no longer have any hope of attending the schools we did," she told Shaw, a Columbia graduate.

That's because the kids and their families can't afford it due to increasing income inequality.

And the lack of opportunity for such high-value education "is affecting their future income opportunities," she added.  "There are plenty" of kids with the talent she had, she said.

Both present and future income inequality is "absolutely" a problem, Sotomayor responded to another Shaw observation on the issue.  "And as the wealth difference grows, we're going to have the problems other countries have."

Sotomayor added it's sometimes difficult to get her points across about the impact of growing up poor to people who did not.  She says she connects when she speaks to the kids, as she remembers her hopes, questions and fears at that age and puts herself in their shoes.  And she urged the crowd to remember that and be true to their principles and ideals.

Photo: Sonia Sotomayor. AP

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