WASHINGTON (AP) _ O.K., so it isn't as revolutionary as the first woman on the court, but the beard that Justice Antonin Scalia was sporting at Monday's opening of the new Supreme Court term was indeed worthy as a historical note.

Not since Charles Evans Hughes left the high court, in 1941, has a justice worn a beard. Not since Thurgood Marshall retired in 1991, has a justice even toyed with a mustache.

In the court, where precedent is observed, established or shattered, changes come glacially. A beard, a new chair, former Justice Tom Clarke's bow tie, all such changes become the stuff of history.

Scalia's beard, spotted during the summer recess, was the subject of speculation in the closed little world of Supreme Court clerks, secretaries and other functionaries. Would he shave it off?

``It's the hottest question in the building,'' Maryellen Toughill, Scalia's longtime secretary, said when pressed last week for her prediction. ``I don't have a clue.''

On Monday, promptly at 10 a.m. the marshal of the court, Dale Bosley, chanted ``oyez, oyez, oyez ...'' and the nine justices stepped from behind the backdrop curtain to open the October 1996 term.

Scalia was in full beard, not the mouth-framing mustache-chin adornment that Hughes wore. The Scalia hair, speckled black and white, reached from sideburn to sideburn.

The justices sit for a new portrait whenever a new member is appointed to the court, so it will be a while before Scalia's hirsuteness is recorded by the court's photographer.

Looking at pictures of the past reveals that the last time there was a Scalia-like adornment was that of a Justice George Sutherland in the court of 1932. It made him notable on a court that included such greats as Louis Brandeis, Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone and Benjamin Cardozo.

As usual on the first Monday in October, the lines were long in front of the court with tourists eager to see the start of a term that will decide such historic controversies as doctor-assisted suicide, the Paula Jones case involving President Clinton and the Brady gun law.

Making his first appearance as acting solicitor general _ the government's top trial lawyer _ was Walter Dellinger. He was introduced to the justices by his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno.

And about that ``oyez, oyez, oyez.'' It means ``hear ye.''