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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, on Monday emphasized the need for judicial independence even as Trump castigates jurists who have ruled against him, while Democrats questioned whether he would rule against abortion rights and gun control while favoring corporations.
As Senate Judiciary Committee opened its confirmation hearing for Gorsuch, Republicans praised the conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado as highly qualified for a lifetime appointment as a justice, with the ideological balance of the Supreme Court at stake.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Trump nominated him on Jan. 31, Gorsuch defended his record as judge in the face of criticism of his rulings by committee Democrats. Despite slim chances of blocking his nomination in the Republican-led Senate, Democrats raised questions about Gorsuch's suitability for the court.
Gorsuch emphasized the need for "neutral and independent judges to apply the law in the people’s disputes" and warned against judicial overreach.
"If judges were just secret legislators, declaring not what the law is but what they would like it to be, the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk," Gorsuch said.
Committee Democrats noted that Gorsuch has the chance to join the court only because Senate Republicans last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland.
"Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable, mainstream conservative or is he not," said the panel's top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee's plain-spoken chairman, said the panel is likely to vote on the nomination on April 3, with the full Senate vote likely soon after. Gorsuch was set to give his opening statement later in the day and face questioning by senators on Tuesday.
If Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal underscored the importance of judicial independence at a time when Trump has excoriated federal judges who have ruled against him on matters including his executive order, put on hold by courts, to block people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.
Blumenthal said it was not "idle speculation" to suggest the Supreme Court might be asked to enforce a subpoena against Trump, citing FBI Director James Comey's testimony before Congress on Monday confirming an ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.
Republican Ted Cruz said there is no reason for Gorsuch to be questioned about Trump, noting that previous nominees have not had to speak about allegations made against the presidents who nominated them.
Democrats highlighted cases on which Gorsuch has ruled and questioned the influence of conservative interest groups in advising Trump on his selection. Gorsuch, a cool-headed and amiable jurist, sat quietly, sometimes smiling, nodding or taking written notes before getting to deliver his own statement.
Feinstein emphasized abortion in particular. Conservatives have long opposed the landmark 1973 ruling called Roe v. Wade in which the court found that a woman has a right under the U.S. Constitution to terminate a pregnancy. Feinstein called that ruling and others since then buttressing legalized abortion "super precedents" that deserve special deference.
Feinstein cited two Gorsuch legal opinions in which she said he "argued in favor of making it harder to convict felons who possess guns."
Fellow Democrat Patrick Leahy said he was worried that Gorsuch’s conservative method of interpreting the Constitution "goes beyond being a philosophy and becomes an agenda" that is anti-abortion, anti-environment and pro-business.
"Will you allow the government to intrude on Americans' personal privacy and freedoms? Will you elevate the rights of corporations over those of real people? Will you rubberstamp a president whose administration has asserted that executive power is not subject to judicial review?" Leahy said.
Gorsuch told the committee that in his decade on the bench, he has tried to treat all who come to court fairly and with respect.
"I have decided cases for Native Americans seeking to protect tribal lands, for class actions like one that ensured compensation for victims of nuclear waste pollution by corporations in Colorado," he said. He also said he has ruled for disabled students, prisoners and workers alleging civil rights violations, and for illegal immigrants.
The hearing could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.
Many Democrats contend Trump's party "stole" a Supreme Court seat by freezing out Garland.
"Your nomination is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government," Senator Dick Durbin told Gorsuch. "That is why the Senate Republicans kept this Supreme Court seat vacant for more than a year and why they left 30 judicial nominees who had received bipartisan approval of this committee to die on the Senate calendar as President Obama left office."
About 30 people in the audience wore red T-shirts emblazoned with #StopGorsuch.
The ideological leaning of the court could be pivotal in determining the outcome of a wide array of matters including the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, voting rights, immigration, religious liberty, presidential powers and others.
Republicans hold 52 of the Senate's 100 seats. Under present rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes in order to secure confirmation. If Democrats stay unified and Gorsuch cannot muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey