WASHINGTON — Judge John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's choice for chief justice of the United States, said Monday that he aspired to a humble and limited role as leader of the Supreme Court, more akin to an umpire who calls the balls and strikes rather than the star player who is the center of attention.
"Justices and judges are servants of the law, not the other way around," Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire."
Roberts' comments came on the first day of his confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee. And his short, simple statement showed the qualities that made him a well-regarded advocate before the Supreme Court as a lawyer, both for the government during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and in private practice.
He spoke directly to the senators and without notes. And he used the baseball analogy to convey his view that the nation's highest court should play a more modest role in American government.
That echoed a theme that had been voiced by the committee's 10 Republican senators. They complained that the Supreme Court had become a "super-legislature" in recent decades, regularly deciding the most controversial political questions of the day. They said the hard political questions should be decided by elected officials, and Roberts indicated that he agreed with them.
A major divide among committee members became clear as several of the panel's eight Democrats said they intended to question Roberts sharply to discern his views on civil rights and abortion. Republicans, however, argued that court nominees should not be quizzed about specific issues or cases.
Although Monday's opening session took place in the grand hearing room in the Russell Building that was the site of earlier confrontations over the Supreme Court nominations of Robert H. Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991, it had none of the tension and acrimony of those battles.
At the hearing's start, Roberts and his wife, Jane, introduced their two children -- Josie, 5, and Jack, 4. Senators smiled at them like proud grandparents.
Even as Roberts spoke of a limited role for the court, he also stressed its crucial role in upholding individual rights against the power of the government -- a favorite theme of the Democrats and liberals.
Roberts, who is a federal appellate judge, said that as a lawyer in private practice he was awed to go before the Supreme Court representing a client who was fighting the federal government.
"Here was the United States, the most powerful entity in the world, aligned against my client. And yet, all I had to do was convince the court that I was right on the law and the government was wrong and all that power and might would recede in deference to the rule of law," he said.
"That is a remarkable thing. It is what we mean when we say that we are a government of laws and not of men," he said.
Roberts recalled President Reagan's frequent references to the Soviet Constitution and its list of rights granted to the people. "Those rights were empty promises because that system did not have an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law and enforce those rights," he said. "We do, because of the wisdom of our founders and the sacrifices of our heroes over the generations to make their vision a reality."
Roberts, 50, was nominated a week ago to succeed the man he had worked for as a clerk at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3. Initially, Bush nominated Roberts for the court in late July to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her retirement.
If confirmed, Roberts would be the youngest chief justice since John Marshall took office in 1801. Several senators said that given his age and good health, Roberts could serve for decades.
Roberts made his opening statement after all of the Judiciary Committee's 18 members had made remarks.
"I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform," he said. "Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes."
He pledged to "confront every case with an open mind.... I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of the law, without fear or favor, to best of my ability," he said.
Roberts' comments addressed the most common complaint conservatives have expressed about the judiciary and the most common concern liberals have voiced about Roberts.
Conservatives often accuse the court of "judicial activism" in the pursuit of liberal causes, such as gay rights and abolition of the death penalty. Liberal advocates, meanwhile, say they are worried that Roberts is a conservative ideologue who would push the court to the right.