SAN FRANCISCO -- In his right hand, Luke Otterstad held a pole attached to a big yellow sign that read "Re-Criminalize Sodomy." In his left, he held a bullhorn that never touched his lips.

"I haven't used it at all," said Otterstad, 22, who drove down from Placerville, prepped for a booming rhetorical showdown with same-sex marriage advocates Tuesday outside the California Supreme Court. "I expected a mob. Maybe it's too early in the morning."

Or too late in the game.

As lawyers on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate argued before the state's highest court and hundreds of people packed into viewing theaters around Civic Center Plaza, barely a murmur arose outside.

A cadre of police officers on guard for a major protest dwindled to a lonely few by the 9 a.m. start of the hearing. A smattering of same-sex marriage opponents baked under a warming sun. Their signs were bigger. And they dominated the rival faction in numbers, by a 12-3 margin.

Make that 12-3, total.

"You would have thought ..." said Mark Williamson, 51, a gay San Francisco man whose partner had to work and couldn't make it out. "There may be a little protest burnout. I guess it's easy to let the court make the decision."

In a city well known for mass demonstrations and feisty civil disobedience around liberal causes, the scene for perhaps the nation's most galvanizing debate was astonishing for its tranquillity.

The action was livelier out on the park lawn, among the older women practicing tai chi dance. The homeless slept easily on the grass. Frisbees flew freely.

As many TV cameras turned out as protesters. More, even. Every protester had a platform, and at least one lens.

The contrast with four years ago, when thousands swarmed on City Hall as gay couples dove into marital union en masse, wasn't lost on the men with the signs who traded scripture-inspired barbs from either side of a yawning social divide.

Asked if he was disappointed, Williamson equivocated.

"Yes, because I would have expected a little motivation," he said. "No, because we're the ones getting on the news."

They weren't the only ones.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who sparked this legal conflict in 2004 with his decision to order up same-sex marriages, emerged into the sun from City Hall.

But not, ostensibly, to talk about same-sex marriage. He was promoting a pledge by San Francisco and other cities to buy only 100 percent recycled paper, talking all about carbon taxes and "zero waste" goals.

He stood in a white shirt before big white bundles of paper scraps in a news conference scheduled smack in the middle of the three-plus-hour court hearing.

Afterward, Newsom looked over toward the Supreme Court building, catawampus across the plaza from City Hall, saying the lack of demonstrators was a good sign, a signal of "how far we've come in a few years."

"Today's not about protests," he said. "It's about making a legal case."

Back inside City Hall, it was business as usual.

Under the rotunda, minutes after they exchanged vows, John Burnett, 35, stood with his new wife, Jasminda, saying he only learned about the court hearing Tuesday morning. They worried about crowds. They needn't have.

As for same-sex marriage, he said: "We're a little more old-fashioned."

Theirs was among three "old-fashioned," opposite-sex wedding ceremonies that had taken place by 11 a.m., with five marriage licenses issued to couples, said Gerardo Romo, the deputy city clerk.

Five more ceremonies were scheduled for the noon hour.

"Tuesdays," said Romo, "are very slow."

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or jsimerman@bayareanewsgroup.com.