Posted May 16, 2010
Rhonda Copelon, a human rights lawyer, died on May 6, 2010, after battling ovarian cancer for four years. Her pathbreaking work, according to Michelle J. Anderson, dean of the CUNY School of Law, “ altred the bedrock of how U.S. courts treat international human rights abuses.”
In the late 1970s, using the Alien Tort Claims Act, a little known federal statue from 1789, Copeland and Peter Weiss, both lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, brought a civil suit for a family in Paraguay whose son had been tortured to death by the police. The torturer subsequently settled in Brooklyn, NY. The decision recognized that victims of international human rights violations may sue in U.S. federal court even if the crime was committed abroad. Thus there is no sanctuary for such criminals. Filáritga v. Peña-Irala became the precedent for increasing the number of internationally recognized human rights, including freedom from torture, slavery, genocide and cruel and inhuman treatment.
Copelon continued her human rights litigation, whether on gender-based violence, racial discrimination, job discrimination, abortion rights or government wiretapping. She worked to establish rape as a form of torture and last year won a $15.5 million settlement brought by Ken Saro Wiwa’s family against Shell Oil for the corporation’s complicity in his 1995 murder in Nigeria.
But the case she argued, and lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, is a case that has haunted not only her but the feminist movement. During the Jimmy Carter administration Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which denies poor women on Medicare the right to abortion under most circumstances. The lead counsel in the Harris v. McRae suit, she was successful in the lower courts only to have the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1980, rule by 5-4 that the amendment did not violate the Constitution.
Rhonda Copelon was a professor at CUNY Law School for more than a quarter century, and continued her work at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Although I never met her, I know she was a strong feminist. Saddened to read her obituary in the May 10 New York Times, I know that she was a positive feminist force in the world, touching the lives of many.