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High-stakes Senate hearing on Trump's Supreme Court nominee begins.jpg

With the ideological balance of the Supreme Court at stake, a U.S. Senate committee began its high-stakes confirmation hearing on Monday for conservative appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's nominee for a lifetime job as a justice.

Gorsuch entered the packed hearing room accompanied by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the plain-spoken Iowan who will chair the Judiciary Committee proceedings, greeting members of the audience and shaking hands with panel members, as a phalanx of photographers snapped pictures.

As the hearing got underway, he introduced his wife and other members of his family. "I appreciate all of the attention," Gorsuch said.

In his opening statement, Grassley said it was important to have jurists who do not exceed their powers.

"Judges are not free to re-write statutes to get results they believe are more just. Judges are not free to re-order regulations to make them more fair. For sure, judges aren't free to update the Constitution. That's not their job."

"Fortunately for every American, we have before us today a nominee whose body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment to these principles. His grasp on the separation of powers, including judicial independence, enlivens his body of work," Grassley said.

Democrats were expected to try to case that Gorsuch is a pro-business, social conservative insufficiently independent of the Republican president. About 30 people in the audience wore red T-shirts emblazoned with #StopGorsuch.

Gorsuch, a cool-headed and amiable conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado, likely will try to engage members of the Judiciary Committee without being pinned down on specifics that could trip up his nomination to the lifetime post. Gorsuch was due to deliver his opening statement later on Monday after members of the committee make theirs.

If Gorsuch, nominated by Trump on Jan. 31, 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.

The hearing which could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.