WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan confronted her critics on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, telling them that her experience and her broad philosophy will bring impartiality and "a commitment to principle" to the court.
"The Supreme Court ... has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals," Kagan said in her 12-minute opening statement. "But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people."
Nonetheless, Republicans challenged the readiness of the 50-year-old Kagan to serve on the court, with the GOP's senior Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, saying he had "serious questions about this nomination."
Kagan, the solicitor general and a former Harvard Law School dean, has had limited courtroom experience, but Democrats, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said her résumé suggested that she would be an excellent justice.
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"I believe that fair-minded people will find her judicial philosophy well within the legal mainstream," he said.
Since Democrats control 58 Senate seats, Kagan is expected to win confirmation to replace 90-year-old Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, who's retiring.
She began Monday at the Oval Office, where President Barack Obama wished her well, and then sat in the vast Senate hearing room as each of the 19 committee members offered glimpses of their views.
The room was crowded but lacked the anticipation and drama that have characterized similar hearings. The public lines to get in weren't as long, and there were empty seats in the media gallery.
Kagan was introduced by Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican, who called her "an impressive and pleasant individual." She then sat alone at the long witness table. She recalled her parents, who "lived the American dream." Her mother, whose family was from Ukraine, "didn't speak a word of English until she went to school." She became a "legendary teacher." She called the court appointment the "honor of a lifetime" and addressed concerns about her résumé.
"I've led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system," she said.
Throughout the opening day of what's expected to be a weeklong confrontation, Republicans and Democrats were maneuvering for advantage. In an unusual and aggressive touch designed to help shape early news coverage, the White House released excerpts from Kagan's opening statement several hours before she was to deliver it.
Kagan is to begin answering questions from committee members today, and most made it clear that they see her nomination -- any nomination, for that matter -- as another chapter in the struggle for ideological control of the court. The hearing starts at 6 a.m. Pacific time.
Sessions offered a list of concerns reaching back to Kagan's college thesis on socialism and to a stint in the Clinton White House, where "she was perhaps the key person who convinced President Clinton to change his mind from supporting to opposing legislation" to ban late-term abortions.
Republicans plan to question her about military recruiters at Harvard and her opposition to the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays and lesbian from openly serving.
"We don't have any substantive evidence to demonstrate your ability to transition from a legal scholar and political operative to a fair and impartial jurist," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Democrats argued otherwise, saying Kagan's real-world experience is a plus.
"You've had a lot of practical experience reaching out to people who hold very different beliefs," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., "and that's increasingly important on a very divided Supreme Court."