Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito did not take part in the case, apparently because they own stock in some of the companies.
Because they did not participate, the Supreme Court said it lacked a quorum, which requires at least six of its nine members. The affirming of the lower-court ruling allows the lawsuits to proceed, but does not represent a decision by the justices on the merits of the dispute.
A majority of the justices who considered the case said it could not be heard and determined in the court's next term because of the lack of a quorum, which happens rarely.
The corporations named in the lawsuits included oil companies such as BP Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp, banks such as Citigroup, Deutsche Bank AG and UBS AG, as well as other multinationals like IBM, General Motors Corp and Ford Motor Co.
The U.S. and foreign corporations appealed to the Supreme Court. The Bush administration and business groups supported the appeal.
The lawsuits, filed in 2002 by three separate groups of plaintiffs, were brought on behalf of all persons living in South Africa between 1948 and 1994 who were apartheid victims.
One set of plaintiffs, a South African human rights organization called the Khulumani Support Group, represents some 36,000 claimants who suffered during apartheid.
"We are delighted. It's a victory and we are very, very happy," said Shirley Gunn, a Khulumani board member who says she was tortured during apartheid.
'MERIT IN THE CLAIMS'
"This is obviously extremely good news. It certainly shows that there is absolute merit in the claims that were filed against the corporations and we now look forward to this matter unfolding further in the New York District Court," Charles Abrahams, a South African lawyer acting on behalf of the group, told Reuters.
Apartheid ended in 1994 when South Africa held its first all-race elections, bringing Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.
A federal judge in New York initially dismissed the lawsuits on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction over the cases. But the appeals court ruled the lawsuits brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) could go forward.
The Bush administration took the position the lawsuits should be dismissed. It said the South African government repeatedly has opposed the lawsuits as an infringement of its sovereignty.
The administration had urged the Supreme Court to rule that a private defendant may not be sued under the ATCA for aiding and abetting a violation of international law by a foreign government in its own territory.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs said the case was not ready for Supreme Court review and that it should be allowed to go back to the federal judge.
The high court's action means the case will go back to the federal judge for more proceedings. Any eventual ruling by the judge then could be appealed by the losing side to the appeals court and ultimately to the Supreme Court.