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, and added that judges should rule "without fanfare, but with due care" so as to decide only the case directly before them.
She pointedly recalled a comment by one of the great justices, Benjamin N. Cardozo: "Justice is not to be taken by storm. She is to be wooed by slow advances."
Trying to galvanize her reputation as a middle-of-the-road judge, she said: "My approach, I believe, is neither 'liberal' nor 'conservative.' "
Even the way Judge Ginsburg delivered her prepared opening statement reflected the careful, modest judge she was portraying herself to be: She read with utmost precision, pausing often and taking 26 minutes to recite just five pages of writing.
Deeply serious throughout that reading, she was animated and laughed openly only when she earlier introduced her 3-year-old granddaughter, Clara, and her 6-year-old grandson, Paul. She displayed happily a book written by Paul, entitled "My Grandma is very, very special." Judge Ginsburg said: "No book in the world means as much [to me] as this one."
The nominee, who is expected to be in the witness chair two more days, was greeted warmly yesterday by every member of the committee. Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., 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.
Two years ago, the committee became embroiled in an angry, and at times profane, controversy over sex harassment charges against nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas.
The contrast yesterday 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."
Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., spoke of "a noticeable difference . . . congeniality prevails over confrontation, back-slapping has replaced back-stabbing, inquiry is the motivation rather than injury. . . . We are scaling the heights of bipartisan cooperation."
Another change also was obvious: For the first time in a Supreme Court nomination hearing, the committee has female members -- Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.
By coincidence, the first nominee they have a chance to question is a woman. Ms. Feinstein lavishly praised Judge Ginsburg for her pioneering work as a lawyer in advancing the cause of women's rights.
But Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, the committee's most liberal member, put the nominee directly on notice that he wants her to be a bolder, more liberal judge than she has been for 13 years on the federal appeals court here.
Noting that she had praised "measured" changes in the law, the Ohio Democrat said: "I am concerned she will always take a similar approach on the Supreme Court, and I will make it no secret that I hope she will not." He warned her that his questions during the hearings will be directed at finding out "whether Judge Ginsburg will lead" the Supreme Court in fulfilling the Constitution's promises of "liberty and justice, even when it is unpopular to do so."
The comment drew a quick retort from one of the committee's most conservative members, Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who told the judge: "Some political activists are hoping your presence on the court will bring back an era of political judging. But that view misunderstands the role of the Supreme Court." He said the court too often has been made into "a political institution."
Judge Ginsburg's opening statement appeared to be aimed primarily at holding the apparent support of the committee's conservative and moderate members. It strongly implied throughout that, as a member of the Supreme Court, she would act very much as she has on the appeals court -- as a "centrist."