In Memoriam: Rhonda Copelon, Human Rights Lawyer

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.


One response to “In Memoriam: Rhonda Copelon, Human Rights Lawyer”

  1. Milagros Garcia Villamil JD Avatar

    Rhonda Copolon was an indeflatable truth seeker and deliverer of the same. She was and is a friend, and colleague whose death shocked me, since we had spoken on the phone often.

    As two people who overstood the blessings and damages of class, race, educ and poverty, we had many discussions about each all of which she was never lost for overstanding.

    Rhonda was raised and reared in class and priviledge, yet never wore the cloak of either. Rather, Rhonda championed the poor and was one of the rare women who were of Jewish ancestry from whom i learned most.
    She was also the person who supported my decision to become ANTI ABORTION..ever reminding me to place principle over personality.

    When i recieved the call, i traveled quietly to NY and met with family, and old colleagues but chose not to attend a service. Rather, i chose to remember my friend as that, ALIVE WELL AND KICKING BUTTS.

    Rhonda was not a feminist* however she was a HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE AND DID AS MUCH WORK TO SECURE THE RIGHTS ALL!
    And may i add..which i will.

    When people met Rhonda the last thing on thier minds was FEMINISM, why? Because she was a supporter of the rights of all human beings, recognizing that those of our gender had to make sure our voices were heard via truth vs headshots, or vying for seats at the table

    However, there is one the sad refrain,and it may be that Rhonda, in all of her magnificense was turned into a mere feminist by white women who only saw her as THIER CHAMPION. Suffice that, we who are concious had her.
    The other even sadder refrain, (can there be two?) is that in the efforts of many who only saw her as “THEIR” champion, the world lost a freedom fighter who gave 100% and then some to perserving the law as the creator meant it to be..So help us GOD

    Rhonda Copolon, was at the head of all tables and she needed noone to pull out her chair.

    PS i use the small i to tell U that there are no small U’s or Big i’s..Entiendes/

    90 miles from Miami