Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor vowed "fidelity to the law" and said she has not advocated for policy since becoming a judge 17 years ago, gently addressing critics on the first day of Senate hearings that produced no fireworks, and even the prospect of Republican support.
Judge Sotomayor, whos been mainly silent since becoming first Hispanic nominated to the high court, used her brief opening statement to address Republican questions about her impartiality and charges that she would legislate from the bench.
"In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law," Judge Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The task of a judge is not to make the law - it is to apply the law. And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms; interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress intent; and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and my Circuit Court."
Judge Sotomayor also responded to critics who said her work for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund revealed her prejudices.
"My career as an advocate ended - and my career as a judge began when I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York," said Judge Sotomayor, whom President Obama nominated in late May.
Republican senators, who are outnumbered 12-7 on the committee, focused much of their opening statements on Judge Sotomayor's remarks that a "wise Latina woman" would make better judgments than a "white male," saying they could not vote for a nominee who could not be impartial on the bench.
"If I had said anything remotely like that, my career would have been over. That's true of most people here. And you need to understand that, and I look forward to talking with you about that comment," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told Judge Sotomayor.
Still, Mr. Graham said he was resigned to the political reality that the Democratic caucus controls 60 of the Senate's 100 seats.
"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to be confirmed," he said.
Monday's session was reserved for opening statements from Judge Sotomayor and members of the committee. She will begin to face questions Tuesday.
The Capitol Hill hearing was interrupted several times by protesters, including a man who shouted shortly before the proceedings began: "What about the rights of the unborn?" Judge Sotomayors stance on the issue is unclear. She has ruled in favor of pro-life stances in at least two cases.
Judge Sotomayor "will be confirmed," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont told reporters after Mr. Graham's comment.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, rebutted critics who say that Judge Sotomayor would be a judicial activist. He said conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was hardly the umpire he said he would be during his 2005 confirmation hearings.
"Many can debate whether his four years on the Supreme Court he actually called pitches as they come or whether he tried to change the rules," Mr. Schumer said.
While none of Judge Sotomayor's public speeches or rulings has proved enough to derail her nomination, Republican lawmakers have found traction with her "wise Latina woman" comment.
The committee's top Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, stuck to that tack, issuing his sharpest condemnation of Judge Sotomayor's public comments without directly saying he would vote against her.
"I feel we've reached a fork in the road, I think, and there are stark differences," Mr. Sessions said. "I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality toward every person who appears before them."
Mr. Sessions' staff distributed packets of five of Judge Sotomayor's speeches with highlighted passages detailing her statements about the influence of personal experience, gender and ethnicity on decision-making.
But Democrats said it would be impossible to divorce judgment from history.
"Now, unfortunately, some have sought to twist her words and her record and to engage in partisan political attacks," Mr. Leahy said. "Ideological pressure groups began attacking her even before the president made his selection. They then stepped up their attacks by threatening Republican senators who do not oppose her."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, reached back to 2005 as well, when Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, outlined his reasons for voting against confirming Judge Janice Rogers Brown to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
"Senator Obama called it 'offensive and cynical' to suggest that a nominee's race or gender can give her a pass for her substantive views," Mr. Hatch said. "He proved it by voting twice to filibuster Judge Janice Rogers Brown's nomination, and then by voting against her confirmation."
Senators open their questioning of Judge Sotomayor on Tuesday morning and are likely to continue into Wednesday, as each member gets a half-hour to prod the nominee.
Judge Sotomayor would be the third woman on the Supreme Court, if approved by the Senate.