Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, faced senators Monday for his confirmation hearing, with Democrats immediately casting him as a threat to civil liberties and social progress.
If confirmed, Gorsuch -- a federal appeals judge for the past decade -- would fill the seat left vacant by the death of towering conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016 in the middle of the presidential election campaign.
Since that time, the court has been operating with eight justices, and Democrats are still bitterly angry over the Republican refusal to even consider Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland for a vote.
"For all its imperfections, I believe the rule of law is truly a wonder," Gorsuch, dressed in a navy blue suit and tie, said in his opening statement. "Putting on a robe reminds us judges that it's time to lose our egos and open our minds."
"If I am confirmed, I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the constitutional laws of this great nation," he added.
The silver-haired 49-year-old judge is expected to be grilled for the next few days in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which opened the hearing with statements from several senators and Gorsuch himself.
The Republicans, who have a majority in the Senate, say they are confident Gorsuch will be confirmed, pushing the court's balance towards the right.
A Colorado native with an Ivy League education, Gorsuch -- the youngest nominee for a generation -- is known for a strict interpretation of the Constitution known as originalism, and his defense of so-called traditional family values.
"As Alexander Hamilton said, liberty can have nothing to fear from judges who apply the law but liberty has everything to fear if judges try to legislate," Gorsuch said.
He will be pushed to expand on his opinions on hot-button issues such as abortion, same sex marriage and the right to bear arms.
Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voiced her fears that a woman's right to an abortion as guaranteed by the high court's decision in Roe v Wade, will be at risk.
"Judge Gorsuch has not had occasion to rule directly on a case involving Roe. However, his writings do raise questions," she told the hearing.
And she queried Gorsuch's "troubling" belief in originalism, saying: In essence, it means that judges and courts should evaluate our constitutional rights and privileges as they were understood in 1789."
- Highest court of the land -
Trump announced his pick of Gorsuch in late January, just 11 days into his presidency.
Some Democrats are demanding a 60-vote threshold for Gorsuch's confirmation, which they have permission to do under Senate rules.
"I think a nominee to the United States Supreme Court ought to be approved overwhelmingly, not by a razor-thin margin. We are talking the highest court of the land -- lifetime appointment," said Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who sits on the judiciary committee.
With Republicans holding 52 seats in the 100-member chamber, Gorsuch would need to earn the support of at least eight Democrats to win confirmation.
But other Democrats, especially those from states that voted for Trump, may be unwilling to force the issue.
And Republicans praised Gorsuch as a man of integrity, beyond reproach.
Committee chairman Chuck Grassley hailed his "exceptional record" while Ted Cruz called Gorsuch "brilliant."
Trump has attacked the federal judiciary in recent weeks, especially over its decisions to block his travel ban on refugees and nationals from six mainly Muslim nations.
Some Republican senators have made it clear they will call on Gorsuch to reject those statements in the coming days.
- No stranger to court -
Gorsuch knows his way around the Supreme Court building -- he was a clerk for the late Byron White. The late justice shared Gorsuch with Anthony Kennedy who, at 80 years old, may now become his colleague.
He then worked as a litigation attorney for a Washington firm before taking a job in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. It was Bush who would nominate him for the federal court position he took in Denver in 2006.
Gorsuch is known for his ability to write incisive rulings and for his traditionalist views, both of which have fueled the comparisons with Scalia.
The Columbia and Harvard grad says he is flattered by such comparisons, and does not hide his admiration for Scalia, who died at age 79.
If he is confirmed, Gorsuch would join:
-- Elena Kagan (56) and Sonia Sotomayor (62), appointed by Barack Obama
-- Chief Justice John Roberts (62) and Samuel Alito (66), appointed by George W. Bush
-- Stephen Breyer (78) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (84), appointed by Bill Clinton
-- Clarence Thomas (68), appointed by George H.W. Bush
-- Anthony Kennedy (80), appointed by Ronald Reagan