In the marble temple where justices call one another "brother" and the clerk summons God's blessing for every worldly decision, people gathered to hear the new revelation from on high.
The Supreme Court, as the Chief Justice puts it, is a place where "a whisper becomes a shout." And this was the matter of Bakke, a celebrated crucible for the definition of racial equality in America.
The justices' wives gathered in summery dresses in the family gallery, as they often do at historic moments. Law clerks crowded in the alcoves. The press and tourists await a milestone, a watershed of some sort.
But there was no thunderclap. Instead, the nine justices spoke in many voices, a chorus of competing viewpoints adding up to a well-modulated counterpoint. The court delivered, collectively, a middle outcome that may ricochet through many corridors of American society, but will not revolutionize the issue of "affirmative action" for blacks and other minorities.
"I will now try to explain how we divided on this issue," said Justice Lewis Powell, the Virginia gentleman who was the swing vote in the 5-to-4 decision. "It may not be self-evident."
Laughter relieved the tension.
An hour later, after listening to five justices explain themselves, the press and tourists stumbled out, a bit benumbed by the history they had witnessed, arguing over its meaning, impressed by occasional eloquence and reaffirming the powerful mystique that those nine unelected men hold in the American system.
Their words will be scrutinized like semi-sacred scrolls, denounced and enshrined, reinterpreted and repromulgated in countless briefs and regulations, memos and petitions.
As Brother Powell noted, the Bakke case stirred an extraordinary amount of extra-judicial kibitzing - a loud public debate, endless articles in the newspapers, unsolicited advice from scholars and editorial writers.
"As we speak today, with a notable lack of unanimity," Powell said, "it may be evident we needed all this advice."
The case proposed a collision of history with itself: the 14th Amendment was adopted after the Civil War to protect the rights of freed blacks. Now a white student in California was invoking its "equal protection" clause to defer his rights against blacks. Allan Bakke was denied admission to medical school at the University of California at Davis, while blacks were accepted under a special admissions program for minorities.
At the margins, the Bakke case provoked extreme claims. If Bakke lost, it was said, then racial favoritism would be enshrined once more in the law and Constitution - after the Supreme Court had spent a generation dismantling the legal caste system that held down black Americans. Or, if Bakke won, government efforts to undo the residual inequality of Jim Crow would halt - the doors would be closed by the same institution, which opened them.
On this tenderest issue, Justice Powell described how he and the court had juggled their way through the competing claims. He agreed with four of his breathren that Bakke was wronged in the California situation. But he agreed with his other four breathren that it is legitimate to use race as a factor in selecting applicants. A university, he declared, may not set aside a fixed quota of slots for one race alone - but the Constitution does allow selecting a diversity of applicants and ensuring that blacks and others are included in that diversity.
After Powell's delicate explanation, the court spoke in many tongues - each side in this two-level decision claiming victory, which is probably what the public debate will sound like too.
Justice John Paul Stevens, at the far end of the long bench, crisply described the narrow construction for Bakke. "Our Constitution is color blind," he said, quoting the lonely and famous dissent from 1897, when the Supreme Court of that era upheld racial segregation.
Brothers William J. Brennan and Byron R. White rocked contentedly, while Stevens spoke, hardly a hint that one concurred and the other vigorously objected.
Brennan spoke next for the "Brennan Four," justices who insist that special policies must be invoked for minorities now to overcome the past, that the 14th Amendment was originally adopted with that in mind.
"We cannot let colorblindness become myopia," Brennan said sharply.
The justice gave a meaningful glance toward the press gallery, where the popular meaning of Bakke, if not its true legal import, will be heavily influenced.
"This is the central meaning of today's opinion," Brennan instructed. "The government may take race into account when it acts not to demean or insult any racial group, but to remedy disadvantages of past racial prejudice."
Brennan read his comments forcefully, as if to convince the nation that it cannot turn its back on that ugly past - not yet. "A glance at our docket and at those of lower courts will show that even today officially sanctioned discrimination is not a thing of the past," Brennan said.
The mild-spoken Minnesotan, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, made the same point and mildly scolded Brother Powell for the unique distinctions he was claiming as middle man in the case.
"It is somewhat ironic," Blackmun noted dryly, that the nation should become so aroused over special admissions programs for blacks - but not over special deals for athletes or the offspring of alumni or the children of the famous and powerful.
The last word on Bakke was dour, a gloomy recital of racial history from Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black justice, who devoted his legal career to this issue as a civil-rights lawyer and won the breakthrough cases a generation ago.
"I fear that we have come full circle," Marshall said in his gruff voice. The court advanced the great struggles for racial equality; now Marshall sees the court slowing them down.
"The dream of America as a great melting pot has not been realized for the Negro," Marshall said. "Because of his skin color he has never even made it into the pot."
Despite his gloom, Marshall made one point upon which all nine of his brethen will surely agree: "I doubt that there is a computer capable of determining the number of persons and institutions that may be affected by the decision in this case."