The Senate Judiciary Committee has begun hearings into President Bush's nominee to be U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Judge John Roberts. They are the first confirmation hearings for a chief justice in nearly two decades. 

Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, opened the hearings by underscoring what is at stake in the confirmation of Judge Roberts to be the nation's 17th chief justice.

Decisions by the high court play a key role in shaping the social, cultural and political fabric of the United States. Senator Specter noted that if confirmed, the 50-year-old Judge Roberts could influence the direction of the Supreme Court for years to come, as justices can serve for life.

"Now we face the biggest challenge of the year, perhaps the biggest challenge of the decade in this confirmation proceeding," he said.

Senate Democrats, vow they will ask tough questions of Judge Roberts, particularly on abortion and civil rights.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat, sought to link the issue of civil rights with Hurricane Katrina. Amid criticism of the federal response to the storm, Senator Leahy noted that many of the storms' victims were black Americans.

"If anyone needed a reminder of the need and role for government, the last days have provided it," he said. "If anyone needed a reminder of the growing poverty and despair among too many Americans, we now all have it. And if anyone needed a reminder of the racial divide that remains in our nation, no one can now doubt that we still have miles to go."

The first day of the hearings Monday was set aside for opening statements. Senators will question Judge Roberts beginning Tuesday. The hearings are expected to last much of the week.

Democrats acknowledge that have not found anything in Judge Roberts' record that would derail his nomination. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he expects the nominee to be confirmed by the full Senate before the high court opens its fall session October 3.

Judge Roberts, an appeals court judge for the past two years, initially had been nominated by President Bush to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but was elevated to chief justice nominee with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist earlier this month.