WASHINGTON - President Bush's nominee for chief justice, Judge John G. Roberts Jr., said yesterday that Supreme Court justices have a "limited role" - to apply the law, not make it.
On the first day of Senate hearings on his nomination, Roberts pledged that, if confirmed, he would decide cases "with an open mind" and work to safeguard the liberties "of all Americans."
The 50-year-old appellate judge's remarks, delivered without notes and lasting just six minutes, addressed issues raised by Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which is expected to approve his nomination next week.
"I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform. Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes," said Roberts, who used a homespun comparison between Supreme Court justices and baseball umpires.
"I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat," he said.
Those remarks echoed comments by Republican senators, who view Roberts as someone who will move the court to the right, in line with the wishes of their party's conservative base.
But Roberts, a White House lawyer under President Ronald Reagan, also spoke of his more recent work as an appellate attorney, representing clients against the government. He said that the rule of law enables a wronged citizen to prevail against the "might" of the United States in court, "a remarkable thing" that reflects that "we are a government of laws and not of men."
Roberts said he was committed to fairly analyze every case and "be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench."
Responding indirectly to concerns expressed by Democrats, who yesterday noted the suffering of many poor, black Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he said, twice, that he was committed to protecting the rights and liberties of "all Americans."
In another apparent nod to Democratic fears - that he will be part of a new conservative majority that overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion rights - Roberts said that judges need to have the "humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent."
Roberts, who would be the youngest chief justice in more than two centuries, said a Supreme Court justice should approach his work with "modesty." He said he was "humbled" by Bush's confidence in him and spoke of his respect and admiration for the man he would replace, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3 at age 80.
Roberts sat alone at the witness table, with his wife, Jane, and other friends and family behind him. Also prominently seated in the front row were his White House handlers, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie, who have helped shepherd the nomination through two months of Senate courtesy calls and intense pre-hearing rehearsals.
Yesterday's session - which ran more than 3 1/2 hours in the Russell Senate Office Building's historic Caucus Room - was a mild prelude to the tough questioning expected this morning, when committee members will get the chance to cross-examine Roberts.
Day One was about photo opportunities, establishing some of the parameters for the debate, and a display of the nominee's considerable gifts as an advocate, which earned him a reputation as one of the most effective lawyers in Washington.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, called the hearings "the biggest challenge of the year, perhaps the biggest challenge of the decade" and vowed to keep the proceedings cordial but substantive.
Republicans on the panel, who like the Democrats had 10 minutes each for opening statements, counseled Roberts to resist efforts to probe his thinking about specific issues and cases, such as Roe v. Wade.
Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said the Senate must evaluate Roberts on a standard "based upon the fundamental principle that judges interpret and apply, but do not make, the law."
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia joined two senators from Indiana, where Roberts grew up, in emphasizing his qualifications rather than his judicial ideology.
"I can say, without equivocation, that I have never seen a nominee with stronger qualifications than John Roberts," said Warner, a 27-year Senate veteran.
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, signaling a theme that Democrats used all afternoon, pointed out that the Supreme Court has frequently been the last stop for Americans looking for justice in areas such as civil rights.
He said the racial and class divides highlighted in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast hurricane make the composition of the Supreme Court more important than ever.
Democrats maintain that Roberts should provide detailed answers in the hearings because once he is confirmed, he has the job for life.
The only woman on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said her chief concern revolves around Roberts' views on the right to privacy, the linchpin of the Roe decision and several other major cases. Feinstein said she would find it "very difficult" to vote to confirm a nominee who would overturn Roe.
"How the court decides future cases could determine whether both the beginning-of-life and the end-of-life decisions remain private, or whether individuals could be subject to government intrusion or perhaps the risk of prison," she said.
After the hearing, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said he was "troubled" that Republicans seemed to be urging silence on Roberts.
"It's very important for the people of the United States to know who this justice is and what his views are," Kennedy said.
The packed hearing chamber, filled largely with journalists and official guests, had room for only about three dozen members of the public, who were brought in and out in shifts. Some wore stickers advertising their feelings, including "Fair Hearing, Fair Vote" and "No on Roberts."
Sun staff writer Jonathan D. Rockoff contributed to this report.