WASHINGTON - Act II in the Supreme Court's constitutional drama over the undecided presidential election played out in a distinctly subdued manner yesterday. It was more a seminar than a grand affair of state.
With some of the political and legal celebrities seated in the same seats they had occupied for Act I - the court's hearing on the same dispute 10 days earlier - the justices showed more fascination with legal technicalities than with broad constitutional philosophy.
It was as if they had become well-prepared students of Florida election law and yearned to test their homework on three lawyers who have been spent many of their waking hours for a month arguing about that subject.
Two of the lawyers in the case titled Bush vs. Gore - Theodore B. Olson for Bush and David Boies for Gore - clearly enjoyed the verbal combat and proceeded mostly unfazed by the rapid-fire questioning from the bench.
Olson fidgeted nervously before the hearing began, uncharacteristic for him. But once on his feet, he was poised, knew his case thoroughly and did not back off when challenged, even on key points.
Boies, who astonishes other lawyers by his ability to present highly complex arguments without a single note in front of him, was an encyclopedia of Florida law and court procedure. The justices did not notice - but the audience did - that Boies was wearing most unusual footwear for a big-time lawyer: his usual black leather sneakers.
Problems with names
The third attorney, Joseph P. Klock Jr., representing Florida election officials, had only 10 minutes allotted to him. But he spent his time in what most lawyers would consider complete agony.
Klock called justices by the wrong names, in one instance using the name of a deceased justice, William J. Brennan Jr. As he kept it up, Justice David H. Souter - one of those misnamed - told Klock, "I'm Justice Souter. You'd better cut that out."
When Justice Antonin Scalia wanted to ask a question, he began, "Mr. Klock, I'm Scalia."
The embarrassed lawyer replied that he remembered that, only to be told by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, "It will be hard to forget."
When Klock did get one name right - referring to the court's first case on the Florida dispute as the "Harris case" - he was corrected on that, too.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist told him, "You refer to the first Harris case. We think of it as the first Bush vs. Gore case."
Though most of the exchanges during the hearing were on refined legal issues, Olson tried an opening with a catalog of sharply worded grievances against the Florida Supreme Court, a target of withering blasts in the legal filings from the Bush camp.
He was interrupted by Justice Kennedy and then by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who implied that he was off on the wrong foot.
Among the lawyers watching from the tables at the front and from the spectator section, there was a buzz before the hearing began, when word circulated from court aides that a decision was likely before the end of the day.
After the court finished the hearing at 12:27 p.m., a half-hour late for the justices' usual lunch break, the air of expectancy of an imminent ruling lingered through the courthouse.
As evening approached, word circulated that the Florida Supreme Court had issued another decision affecting the case that had just been argued in Washington. At that point, it still appeared that a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court would be issued before the end of the day.
Rehnquist sauntered through the hallways, apparently taking a break from the deliberations, but he revealed nothing to those he passed. Shortly afterward, some of the justices left the building.
Not long after that, a court spokeswoman announced: "Indications are that an opinion is not likely tonight."
The courthouse quickly emptied, with the legal vigil to begin again this morning.