Rhonda Copelon was a force of nature and a CCR institution. As an early staff member and longtime Board member, Rhonda blazed the trail for countless people’s lawyers and social justice advocates.
As part of her commitment to the Center for Constitutional Rights and to future generations of advocates, Rhonda generously pledged a significant gift to CCR to establish the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice. The Fund will continue and deepen our gender work by creating dedicated, intersectional work along the lines of gender, LGBT issues, poverty and race across our docket areas; and by defending women and LGBT communities under attack by religious fundamentalists and evangelicals in the U.S. and abroad. The Center will soon be filing several cases kick started by this gift.
CCR is honored to establish the Copelon Fund celebrating Rhonda and her tremendous legacy. Her work to combat gender-based violence, racial discrimination, anti-abortion laws, and other human rights violations was unprecedented and helped protect and advance our fundamental rights over the last several decades.
As many of you know, Rhonda was always challenging those around her. With the Fund, Rhonda left one last challenge to everyone, both in her community and in the world—to build the Fund and continue her work. In order to receive the full amount of her generous bequest, CCR must match her gift with funds raised from other sources.
Rhonda Copelon, a CUNY School of Law professor and human rights attorney with and Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was a human rights leader who broke new ground opening U.S. federal courts and international tribunals to gender-based violence and international human rights violations.
Copelon was noted for her key role in the landmark human rights case, Filártiga v. Peña-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 Filártiga and McCrae decisions came down on June 30, 1980.
Over the course of her 12 years on staff at CCR, Copelon challenged racial discrimination, government wiretapping, and worked on several landmark cases including Filártiga. 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 Filártiga case, Copelon turned to international human rights as a basis for protection of rights of women and the poor.
In 1983, Copelon was a founding faculty member of CUNY Law, and in 1992 she co-founded the Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR). She 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 Court and personnel. In particular, as a result of her tireless passion and work with partnering organizations, the International Criminal Court instead codified sexual and gender crimes as being part of their jurisdiction.
“Rhonda had a fiery passion to bring justice to all the oppressed and abused women of the world."
~Peter Weiss, Vice President of CCR and co-counsel in Filártiga
“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 Filártiga principle. She was the pillar that held me throughout the toughest times of my life.”
~ Dolly Filártiga, the plaintiff in the case that bore her family name and who became her dear friend
“It was hearing Rhonda speaking about Harris v. McCrae at Yale Law School that inspired me to come to CCR in the first place.”
~ Professor David Cole, of Georgetown University Law Center, a leading constitutional scholar and CCR alumni and current board member