WASHINGTON -- Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, beginning what one senator called a "triumphal march" to the Supreme Court, sought to convince the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that she would be a cautious justice, skeptical about bold ventures in the law.
The 60-year-old jurist said on the first day of nationally televised hearings that she considers the courts to be "third in line" in the United States' government structure, behind the executive and legislative branches.
When asked about overturning past constitutional rights decisions, Judge Ginsburg said she would first ask "What is the alternative?"
Then, she promised, "As a general matter, I would never tear down [a major ruling] unless I have" something better "to put up" in its place.
She also spoke with disdain about a court assuming too great a role in ruling over the United States. "It would be easy to appoint Platonic Guardians," she told panel Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., "but we wouldn't have a democracy."
Pressed for her views on abortion rights, the judge repeated her earlier criticism that the court may have ruled too broadly in the original 1973 ruling, Roe vs. Wade.
This time, however, she added a new complaint about the Roe ruling: She said that decision made a woman's right to abortion depend upon her having consulted a doctor, and she spoke negatively of a woman having to have "somewhat of a Big Brother figure next to" her.
She then commented favorably about the court's most recent abortion ruling last year, although that has been attacked sharply by abortion rights forces for narrowing the right to abortion and giving legislatures more power to restrict abortions. Judge Ginsburg appeared to be praising it because the choice is left to the woman, alone.
Throughout a long day in the witness chair, the nominee avoided direct answers to most questions by senators seeking to get her views on specific issues, or she gave long, sometimes rambling answers heavy with technical legal jargon and concepts.
Mr. Biden tried in vain to get her to say how she felt about the Supreme Court making major constitutional rulings that turn out to be very unpopular with the public. After he had rephrased that question repeatedly, each time getting no explicit response, he dropped the matter.
At one point, though, Mr. Biden said admiringly: "Judge, you're good, you're real good."
The most dramatic moments of the day came when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., put the focus on Judge Ginsburg's past as a pioneering women's rights lawyer, and her experiences as a victim herself of discrimination.
Under gentle questioning from Mr. Kennedy, Judge Ginsburg spoke with evident feeling as she recalled the actual people involved in some of the sex bias cases she handled as an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.
At one point, the usually solemn judge laughed almost giddily recounting a restaurant discussion over a lawsuit involving a man who wanted to be an airline steward, when only attractive women could get such jobs -- "the days of 'I'm Cheryl, Fly me.' "
A waitress, overhearing the conversation, said: "I just came back on an Air Italia plane, and there was the most adorable steward!"
A male companion then asked Ms. Ginsburg: "Do women look at men that way?" With evident delight, Judge Ginsburg told the senators her answer: "Darn right we do!"
A moment later, she grew serious again when Mr. Kennedy asked if she had been "sensitized" about discrimination by her own experience as a victim of bias. The nominee recalled being a child in a Jewish family, and on a Pennsylvania outing passing a resort sign that said: "No dogs or Jews allowed."
She added: "I couldn't help but be sensitive to discrimination, living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II."
The nominee, who is expected to be in the witness chair two more days, was greeted warmly yesterday by the whole committee.
Mr. Biden spoke with evident relief about the lack of any front-page controversy raging around this nomination. "This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me since I became chairman," he said.
The contrast yesterday with past controversies was evident, and often noted. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., said early in the hearing that "this sounds like the triumphal march of Judge Ginsburg."