[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/13/art.franken0713.gi.jpg caption="Sen. Franken was the last senator to give his opening statement Monday as the Sotomayor confirmation hearing got under way."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) – Sen. Al Franken, fresh off a win in a contentous Senate race in Minnesota, found himself at the center of the national political stage Monday as confirmation hearings began for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
"I know I have a lot to learn from each of you," Franken told the other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Minnesota Democrat also described himself as "truly humbled" to join the committee "which has played and will continue to play such an important role in overseeing our nation's system of justice."
The former cast member of "Saturday Night Live" quickly turned serious during his opening statement.
Pointing out that Monday was his fifth day in office, Franken observed "I am the senator who most recently took the oath of office.
Last Tuesday I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to bear truth faith and allegiance to it. I take this oath very seriously . . . ."
Franken focused the substance of his opening remarks on the impact of the courts on Americans' lives - and told the packed hearing room that he sees challenges to the rights of Americans as citizens and voters.
"I believe that the position of Congress with respect to the courts and the Executive is in jeopardy."
In what was likely a preview of contentious discussion to come during Sotomayor's hearing, Franken challenged notions of judicial activism and judicial restraint.
"For example, during the [William] Rehnquist Court, Justice Clarence Thomas voted to overturn federal laws more than Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer combined," the new senator said.
Franken also said he was concerned that Americans are facing new barriers to defending their individual rights.
"The Supreme Court is the last court in the land where an individual is promised a level playing field and can seek to right a wrong."
On a number of fronts – including workplace discrimination, securities fraud, free speech online, voting rights, reproductive rights – Franken said "the past decade has made it a little bit harder for American citizens to defend themselves."
Franken ended his remarks by directly addressing Sotomayor.
"I want to learn what you think is the proper relationship between Congress and the courts, between Congress and the Executive. I want to learn how you go about weighing the rights of the individual . . . . and more powerful interests. And I want to hear your views on judicial restraint and activism," he told President Obama's nominee.