WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee John Roberts said Monday that justices are servants of the law, playing a limited government role, as the Senate opened confirmation hearings on President Bush’s choice to be the nation’s 17th chief justice.

“A certain humility should characterize the judicial role,” the 50-year-old Roberts told the Judiciary Committee. “Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around.”

The appellate judge likened jurists to baseball umpires, saying that “they make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”

The drama of Roberts’ swearing-in and his short statement capped a half day in which Democrats and Republicans sparred over the legitimacy of questioning him about divisive issues. Arguments about ideology and judicial activism also marked the hours devoted to opening statements from the 18-member panel.

Speaking without notes, Roberts addressed the committee for about six minutes – barely half the time each of the senators had been allotted for opening statements before he took the oath and made his remarks. He will answer questions from senators at much greater length on Tuesday.

“Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate in a system that precedent shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath,” Roberts said. He said he appeared before the committee with “no agenda. I have no platform.”

At age 50, Roberts could help shape the Supreme Court for a generation if confirmed to replace the late William H. Rehnquist. All questions, Democrats said, were fair game, and they promised to use the nearly weeklong hearings to ask Roberts about abortion, civil rights, privacy, election rights, capital punishment, judicial activism and the powers of the presidency and Congress.

Republicans advised Roberts to follow the example set by recent nominees to the high court and avoid responding to probing questions on controversial topics.


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