The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday judged David H. Souter overwhelmingly fit to become a Supreme Court justice.

It voted 13-1 - with only Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., opposing - to endorse Souter and send his nomination to the full Senate, which may vote on the nomination Friday. That would allow Souter to join the court before it begins its session on Monday.Despite the lopsided vote, Democrats said Souter barely proved himself worthy of endorsement, while Republicans - led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - blasted Democrats for trying to force nominees to pledge how they will rule on issues like abortion.

"I believe he will join the Supreme Court with an independent mind, willing to consider different points of view," Hatch said."I do not believe that he will impose his own policy preferences on the American people in the guise of judging."

But Kennedy disagreed. "If Judge Souter joins the current closely divided court, he will solidify a 5-4 anti-civil rights, anti-privacy majority inclined to turn back the clock on the historic progress of recent decades."

Other Democrats said they have similar fears but that Souter in his 20 hours of testimony before the committee - the second-longest ever, behind that of failed nominee Robert Bork - had given them enough hope that he will be fair and just.

Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., said, "Judge Souter is not the sort of judge I would nominate if I were president, but I think that he is about the best we can expect in the divided-government situation that we now face."

Hatch rejected arguments by Democrats that Souter appeared to back mandated racial preference cases or some types of privacy cases.

"Judge Souter did not commit as to how he would rule in those areas or hardly any other area. And where he may have been more forthcoming, he is entitled to change his mind after reading the briefs and hearing oral arguments," Hatch said.