Elena Kagan, nominated to become the 112th justice and only the fourth woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, broke her silence today and directly addressed Republican critics as the political showdown over her confirmation begins in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle, and in accordance with the law," Kagan told senators on the first day of the weeklong hearings on her qualifications to serve on the nation's highest court.
Kagan, a former solicitor general for the Obama administration, dean of Harvard Law School and staff attorney in the Clinton administration, has never been a judge. But she argued that her diverse experiences have prepared her well for the challenges of sitting on the bench.
"I've learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide," she said. "I've learned that we come closest to getting things right when we approach every person and every issue with an open mind. And I've learned the value of a habit that Justice Stevens wrote about more than 50 years ago -- of 'understanding before disagreeing.'"
But Kagan's attempt to cast herself as an open-minded consensus-builder may not easily sway some Republicans who warn she would be a justice whose liberal political views will influence her decisions.
"Ms. Kagan has associated herself with well-known activist judges who use their power to redefine the meaning of the words of our Constitution and laws in ways that, not surprisingly, have the result of advancing the judge's preferred social policies for the country," said Alabama Republican Sen.Jeff Sessions.
Republicans are also expected to grill Kagan during questioning about her role in banning military recruiters from the Harvard Law School career services office during her tenure as dean over of opposition to the "don't ask don't tell" policy.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said the decision to "punish the military" by blocking the recruiters "marred" Kagan's academic record and raises "warning signs" about her philosophy.
But Democrats, including Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, said criticism of Kagan overlooks her unequoval qualification for the bench and will ultimately not derail her ascension to the high court.
Sen. Graham Largely Positive on Kagan in Remarks
"I think what they're going to find when they get done is here's a woman who is a brilliant lawyer, the first woman to become dean of Harvard law school, no small achievement, and first woman to become solicitor general, and I think she'll become the third woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court," said Leahy on "Good Morning America."
At least one Republican seemed to concede as much today. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said he believes Kagan is qualified, but wanted reassurances that her role in liberal causes will be "parked at the door" if she enters the court.
"There's no doubt in my mind that you're a liberal person... It's ok to be liberal, it's ok to be conservative," Graham said. But "whether or not activism will be part of that is up to you."
Kagan, who would fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, will face the senators' questions tomorrow, when she will likely pledge to uphold the Constitution and honor legal precedent as past nominees have done.
But Kagan may also face pressure to answer more explicitly about her personal views since she has little legal or judicial record and because she has criticized previous hearings as a "vapid and hollow charade."
Before heading to Capitol Hill this morning, Kagan met in the Oval Office with President Obama, who offered his encouragement and wished her good luck ahead of the hearing, according to an administration official.
Over the weekend, Obama expressed confidence in his second high court appointee, calling some of the arguments against Kagan's confirmation in recent weeks "pretty thin gruel."
"I expect that my Republican colleagues and my Democratic colleagues should ask her tough questions, listen to her testimony, go through the record, go through all the documents that have been provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then vote their conscience," he said.