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Kagan pledges impartiality, restraint

| June 29, 2010 9:00 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) - Elena Kagan pledged to be a model of impartiality and restraint as a Supreme Court justice as the Senate opened confirmation hearings Monday, but she still braced for a grilling by Republicans who suggest she would let liberal views color her rulings.

Breaking weeks of public silence since President Barack Obama nominated her to be the fourth woman in the court's history, Kagan called the Supreme Court "a wondrous institution" but one with limited powers under the Constitution. She billed herself as a consensus-builder for the ideologically polarized court and said she would strive to emulate retiring Justice John Paul Stevens - the man she has been chosen to succeed - by "listening to each party with a mind as open as his ... to render impartial justice."

The 50-year-old solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean appeared on track for confirmation before the court opens a new term in October as she delivered her brief statement at the end of a day of senatorial speechmaking in a cavernous hearing room on Capitol Hill. However, the deep partisan divide over the court - and Kagan's fitness to serve there - was evident.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, called Kagan's views "well within the legal mainstream."

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's top Republican, countered that her "career has been consumed more by politics than law."

Kagan, who has been cramming in private rehearsals for the thrust and parry of the hearings, faces a long Tuesday of close questioning by senators, friendly and otherwise. She's likely to field queries on a wide range of legal issues as well as her decision as Harvard Law dean to bar military recruiters from the campus career services office because of the Pentagon's ban on openly gay soldiers.

"It's not a coronation but a confirmation process," said Sessions. He said Kagan has "less real legal experience (than) any nominee in at least 50 years." And he said her stance on military recruitment violated the law - a legal conclusion disputed by the White House.

Kagan said her career has taught her about the importance of a modest court and open-mindedness when dealing with opposing views.

The Supreme Court "has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals. But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people," Kagan said. "I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with law."

Her remarks seemed designed to blunt conservatives' argument that she would bend the law to suit her own agenda - and also to reassure liberals that she would be a counterweight to what they characterize as a pro-business, conservative-dominated court that has done just that in recent years.

Republicans and Democrats alike used the hearing to rail against "judicial activism." The GOP, seeking to tap into tea party disgust with a federal government many members say has overstepped its bounds, has portrayed Kagan as a prime example of what they charge is Obama's desire to populate the nation's court with liberals willing to stretch the law to achieve preferred policy outcomes.

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