Human Rights Champion Rhonda Copelon Dies: Broke New Ground to Open U.S. Federal Courts to Victims of International Human Rights Abuses

Pioneering Attorney Won Landmark Rights Case in U.S. Court of Appeals on Same Day Supreme Court Narrowly Rejected Her Challenge to the Hyde Amendment on Abortion Restrictions for the Poor

New York, NY – On May 6, 2010, Rhonda Copelon, a CUNY School of Law professor, human rights attorney and a Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) who broke new ground opening U.S. federal courts and international tribunals to gender-based violence and international human rights violations, died at age 65. The cause was ovarian cancer.

Copelon was noted for her key role in the landmark human rights case, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, which established that victims of gross human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to U.S. Courts. Additionally, she was a champion of women’s reproductive health and argued before the Supreme Court in Harris v. McRae, in which the Court narrowly upheld the Hyde Amendment which prohibited Medicaid reimbursement for almost all abortions. Remarkably both the Filartiga and McCrae decisions came down on June 30, 1980.

“Professor Copelon’s passing is a huge loss for human rights worldwide,” said CUNY School of Law Dean Michelle J. Anderson. “Her tireless passion and precedent-setting work leaves a legacy in human rights law, and particularly women’s rights law, that altered the bedrock of how U.S. courts treat international human rights abuses,” Anderson added.

Peter Weiss, a vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) where she began her ground breaking feminist-oriented legal work as a staff attorney, and her co-counsel in Filartiga said, “Rhonda had a fiery passion to bring justice to all the oppressed and abused women of the world.”

Dolly Filartiga, the plaintiff in the case that bore her family name who became her dear friend added, “Rhonda was a true fighter who through the years has shown me her unconditional love for human kind and her effusive desire for the equal rights of all beings. Without her, there would not be a Filartiga principle. She was the pillar that held me throughout the toughest times of my life.”

Over the course of her 12 years at CCR Copelon challenged racial discrimination, government wiretapping, and worked on several landmark cases including Filartiga. She also argued before the Supreme Court in Drew v. Andrews, in support of African-American women plaintiffs who were denied teaching jobs because of the Mississippi Drew municipal school district policy that barred parents of out-of-wedlock children from all but janitorial positions. In this challenge to this moralistic and punitive policy, young unwed mothers won their case and their jobs back at the Supreme Court based on a claim of marital discrimination.

Deeply distressed by the majority’s cruel interpretation of the Constitution in McRae, but heartened by the door opened on the same day by the Filartiga case, Copelon turned to international human rights as a basis for protection of rights of women and the poor. “Rhonda was creative, determined, and impassioned. She never understood the word ‘impossible,'” said Nancy Stearns, Copelon’s former CCR colleague.

Professor David Cole, a leading constitutional scholar and CCR alumni said: “It was hearing Rhonda speaking about Harris v. McCrae at Yale Law School that inspired me to come to CCR in the first place.”

In 1983, Copelon was a founding faculty member of CUNY Law. In 1992 she co-founded the Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR). Under her leadership, CUNY Law’s IWHR clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in a range of precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns. For example, IWHR’s amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia contributed to the recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture. IWHR’s work with the United Nation’s Committee Against Torture, and other international bodies, contributed to the recognition that gender crimes, such as domestic and other forms of gender violence, can constitute torture under the United Nation’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Further while at CUNY Law, Copelon also cofounded the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice and through her role as secretariat and as the Director of IWHR, she coordinated an effort with partners across the globe ensuring that the Rome Statute was written to take gender into account concerning the crimes, procedure and evidence and composition of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and personnel. In particular, as a result of her tireless passion and work with partnering organizations, the ICC codified sexual and gender crimes as being part of their jurisdiction. “At every turn, Professor Copelon made CUNY Law proud,” said Anderson. “She inspired a new legal framework for adjudicating and understanding gender-based crimes.”

In the fall of 2009, Dean Anderson announced “with great sadness” Professor Copelon’s retirement and her continuation with the Law School as an emeritus faculty member. In retiring, Copelon commented that her “26 year romance with CUNY Law will never end.” “Professor Copelon’s spirit and intention will always infuse our community,” said Anderson. “Her passion and intellect helped shape this School’s core mission and values.” Leading feminist scholar Charlotte Bunch said: “Rhonda’s impact is lasting, and that includes her impact on training a new generation of committed feminist progressive lawyers.”

In a special Fall 2009 CUNY Law Magazine issue, Copelon described her 26 years at CUNY Law as “a fabulous and privileged journey in education and advocacy working with amazing students, as well as partners and clients here and abroad.” Copelon, who was always humble about her leadership, credited the “cadre of activists, visionaries, and countless courageous women here and abroad who began long, deep, intersectional, and gender inclusive feminist revolutions that exposed the andro-centrism of human rights law.”

In Her Memory
Professor Copelon asked CUNY Law to establish a fund to support the important, continuing work of the IWHR Clinic. In addition, she announced the establishment of a “Gender-Justice” fund at CCR for which she has provided the seed funding.

Vivian Todini, CUNY School of Law 917.747.7980
David Lerner, Riptide Communications 212.260.5000

In Memoriam: Professor Rhonda Copelon »