WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch pledged to be independent or “hang up the robe” as the U.S. Senate began rancorous hearings Monday on President Trump’s conservative pick to fill a Supreme Court seat that has been vacant for more than a year.

Gorsuch sought to take the edge off Democratic complaints that he has favored the wealthy and powerful in more than 10 years as a federal judge. The 49-year-old Coloradan told the Senate Judiciary Committee he has tried to be a “neutral and independent” judge and has ruled both for and against disabled students, prisoners and workers alleging civil rights violations.

“But my decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me, only my best judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case,” Gorsuch said. That was his opening statement a day ahead of expected pointed questioning from committee Democrats.

A Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a major occasion on Capitol Hill — the last one was in 2010 — but Monday’s was overshadowed by a separate event. On the House side of the Capitol, FBI Director James Comey was testifying that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election and possible links and coordination between Russia and associates of Trump.

Blending the two hearings, Sen. Richard Blumenthal , D-Conn, referred to “a looming constitutional crisis” that the Supreme Court might need to resolve. The court’s eight current justices are roughly divided ideologically between conservatives and liberals.

The Russian story line as well as Trump’s verbal attacks on federal judges both during the campaign and as president have fed into Democratic efforts to force Gorsuch to break publicly with the man who nominated him. Gorsuch already has told some senators in private meetings that he found the criticism of the judges disheartening. But Blumenthal said the nominee needs to make a statement “publicly and explicitly and directly.”