WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, promised on Monday to apply the law impartially as Republicans used the first day of her confirmation hearings to repeatedly question her objectivity.
Sotomayor, 55, is widely expected to be confirmed as the first Hispanic justice on the ideologically-divided Supreme Court, whose nine members rule on key Constitutional issues such as the death penalty, abortion and gun rights.
In her opening statement, Sotomayor recounted her "uniquely American" resume as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who moved from New York housing projects through Ivy League classrooms and on to become an appeals court judge.
And she sought to defang Republican critics, who have portrayed her May 26 nomination by Obama as part of a plan to appoint liberal "activists" to the Supreme Court to drive changes in social policy.
"Many Senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make the law - it is to apply the law."
Sotomayor's statement came at the end of the first day of hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans are fighting an uphill battle against her nomination. The hearings are expected to continue for several days.
Republicans have all but conceded they lack the votes to stop the Democratic-run Senate from approving Sotomayor to the life-time post. Many on both sides of the aisle agree she has outstanding legal qualifications.
"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Sotomayor, saying he had not decided how he would vote.
Other Republicans had no such doubts, and brought up elements of Sotomayor's record that they said showed she would put personal bias or "empathy" above legal statute.
"We remain focused on some of the fundamental questions about the philosophy of Judge Sotomayor," Senator Jeff Sessions, the top ranking Republican on the committee, said after Monday's hearing.
He said Sotomayor's record was in some ways "a rather serious critique of the classic ideal of blind justice."
Sotomayor's positions on a number of important divisive legal issues including abortion and gun rights remain murky.
Most observers expect her to fill the role of retired Justice David Souter and keep the court's ideological balance unchanged at 5-4 in favor of conservatives.
During the hearing, Republicans repeatedly brought up two examples from Sotomayor's record that they call problematic.
One, which received much publicity, was Sotomayor's comment in a speech in 2001 that a "wise Latina" might arrive at a better legal decision than a white man -- a view that Obama himself later said she might have "restated".
The other was an appeals court decision she agreed to which threw out firefighter exam results which did not produce enough qualified minority candidates.
That decision was overruled last month by the Supreme Court, drawing fresh attention to where Sotomayor might stand on the hotbutton issue of racial preferences or "affirmative action" meant to redress former inequities in U.S. society.
"Boiled down, my concern is this: that Judge Sotomayor's record suggests a history of allowing her personal and political beliefs to seep into her judgments on the bench, which has repeatedly resulted in unequal treatment for those who stand before her," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.
In her remarks, Sotomayor did not address either case but did obliquely refer to the role her personal history might play in her decision-making process.
"My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case," she said.
Sotomayor began her statement with a special note of thanks to her mother, who raised her alone after her father died when she was nine, and who sat behind her dabbing away tears.
Democrats said Sotomayor embodies a "success story in which all Americans can take pride."
"She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a Justice for all Americans," said the committee's chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
Sotomayor received the top rating from the influential American Bar Association and polls show a slim majority of Americans believe she should be confirmed for job.