|A crowd of protesters gathered outside the court and chanted slogans against the retailer [Getty Images]
The US Supreme Court has questioned the legality of the bid by a small group of women to represent more than a million others in suing Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, for alleged gender bias.
The court on Tuesday was hearing whether the largest sex discrimination lawsuit in US history should go ahead.
The women, who are suing Walmart for being discriminated against in pay and promotions, want to bring a class action suit on behalf of other female employees.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote on the nine-member court, said: "I'm just not sure what the unlawful policy is.”
Potentially liability could reach billions of dollars.
The Supreme Court is only deciding whether the lawsuit can go to trial as a group. If the court rejects the class-action status, the individual women still can sue, both sides in the case say.
Large class-action lawsuits make it easier for groups of plaintiffs to sue corporations and have led to huge payouts by tobacco, oil and food companies.
During the session, some justices strongly questioned the women's arguments.
Justice Antonin Scalia said he felt "whipsawed" by the plaintiffs' argument and said they had not made clear whether it was Walmart's corporate culture or local store managers who were allegedly at fault for lower pay and fewer promotions to women. "Which is it?" he asked.
Scalia questioned if it would be fair to the company for the case to proceed. "Is this really due process?" he asked.
Walmart's attorney, Theodore Boutrous, said female employees in different jobs and in different stores do not have enough in common to be in a single class-action lawsuit.
"It's not fair to anyone to put this all into one big class," he told the justices, adding that the company has a strong policy against discrimination.
Joseph Sellers, an attorney for the women, argued the class-action lawsuit should be allowed to go to trial for a decision on the merits of the claims. "This is an extraordinary case," he said.
Chris Kwapnoski, a 24-year Walmart employee and one of the named plaintiffs in the case, told reporters after the arguments, "We're not going to lose."
She recalled being told by a manager to "brush the cobwebs off" and "doll up" if she wanted advancement.
The court is likely to make a ruling by late June. The decision could change the legal landscape for workplace and other class-action lawsuits.