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U.S. Supreme Court nominee hearings begin

In her first day of hearings, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan pledged to strive to "consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with law."

Confirmation hearings have begun for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, who pledged Monday to be properly deferential to Congress if confirmed as a justice and to strive to "consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with law."

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan smiles on as she takes her seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday, prior to the start of her confirmation hearings before the Senate judiciary committee. ((Susan Walsh/Associated Press))

In advance excerpts of her opening statement before the Senate judiciary committee, Kagan said the court is responsible for making sure the government does not violate the rights of individuals.

"But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people," she said.

As the opening gavel fell on her nationally televised hearings, the 50-year-old Obama administration official and former Harvard Law School dean appeared on track for confirmation, the result of a Democratic majority on the judiciary committee and in the Senate as a whole.

The hearings are expected to last three days, but could be prolonged if necessary.

In excerpts of his own, the committee's chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, noted that if confirmed, Kagan would be the fourth woman to take a seat on the high court. She is also President Barack Obama's second nomination to don the robes of a justice, following his selection last year of Sonia Sotomayor.

"No senator should seek to impose an ideological litmus test to secure promises of specific outcomes in cases coming before the Supreme Court," Leahy said.

'A wondrous institution'

Obama nominated Kagan to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, a frequent dissenter in a string of 5-4 rulings handed down by a conservative majority under Chief Justice John Roberts.

A handful of protesters gathered outside the Senate Hart Office Building across the street from the Capitol, some opposing Kagan's nomination, others expressing unhappiness that Republicans haven't done more to block it.

By mid-morning about 200 people had claimed tickets for seats in the hearing room, the first ones arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. to line up in the heat.

"The Supreme Court is a wondrous institution. But the time I spent in the other branches of government remind me that it must also be a modest one," Kagan said in the excerpts released in advance.

With allies arguing she can be a consensus-builder on the ideologically polarized court, Kagan says her time at Harvard taught her the importance of open-mindedness across apparent political and ideological divides.

Democrats have more than enough votes to confirm her, and Republicans have shown no inclination to try to block such a vote, although some conservative interest groups are urging them to do so.