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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court’s four liberal justices, said there was more than enough to unite the claims.

Wal-Mart’s delegation of discretion over pay and promotions is a policy uniform throughout all stores,” Ginsburg said. The other women on the court, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg’s opinion.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats criticized the ruling and called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to reduce wage disparities between men and women.

“Today’s ruling underscores the need to act boldly and strongly on behalf of women’s rights,” Pelosi said.

Business interests, including nearly two dozen large companies, lined up with Wal-Mart, while civil rights, women’s and consumer groups sided with the women plaintiffs.

Both sides painted the case as extremely consequential. The business community said that a ruling for the women would lead to a flood of class-action lawsuits based on vague evidence. Supporters of the women suggested a decision in favor of Wal-Mart could remove a valuable weapon for fighting all sorts of discrimination.

Said Greenberger: “The women of Wal-Mart, together with women everywhere, will now face a far steeper road to challenge and correct pay and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the court had set a high bar in ruling that “mega-class actions such as this one are completely inconsistent with federal law.”

The Wal-Mart lawsuit, citing what are now dated figures from 2001, said that women are grossly underrepresented among managers, holding just 14 percent of store manager positions compared with more than 80 percent of lower-ranking supervisory jobs that are paid by the hour. Wal-Mart responded that women in its retail stores made up two-thirds of all employees and two-thirds of all managers in 2001.

The company also has said its policies prohibit discrimination and that it has taken steps since the suit was filed to address problems, including posting job openings electronically.

Associated Press writer Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.