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CUNY Law professor, rights advocate dies

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Rhonda Copelon, a professor at CUNY School of Law in Flushing who championed human and women’s rights in a number of ground-breaking federal cases, died last week at her home in Manhattan. She was 65.

The cause of death was ovarian cancer, CUNY school officials said.

A founding faculty member of CUNY School of Law in 1983, Copelon has been praised for her key role in a landmark human rights case, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, which established that victims of human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to U.S. courts.

“Professor Copelon’s passing is a huge loss for human rights worldwide,” CUNY School of Law Dean Michelle Anderson said. “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.”

The Filártiga case allowed a family from Paraguay to sue police in their home country in U.S. courts after the family’s son had been tortured to death by the cops.

“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,” said Dolly Filártiga, the plaintiff in the case that bore her family name. “She was the pillar that held me throughout the toughest times of my life.”

Copelon launched her career at the Center for Constitutional Rights as a staff attorney. Over the course of her 12 years at the CCR, Copelon challenged racial discrimination and government wiretapping. She again argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of black women plaintiffs who were denied teaching jobs because a Mississippi school district policy barred parents of out-of-wedlock children from all but janitorial positions. The mothers won their case and jobs.

“Rhonda had a fiery passion to bring justice to all the oppressed and abused women of the world,” said Peter Weiss, a vice president at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

A number of individuals at the CCR praised their former colleague, and David Cole, a leading constitutional scholar and CCR alumnus, said he was inspired to work at the CCR in the first place because he heard Copelon speak about her work fighting for women’s rights.

“Rhonda was creative, determined and impassioned,” said Nancy Stearns, a former colleague of Copelon at the CCR. “She never understood the word ‘impossible.’”

Copelon began working at the CUNY School of Law in 1983 and in 1992 she co-founded the school’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic. Under her leadership, the clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns.

For example, the clinic’s briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia resulted in international law recognizing rape as a crime of genocide and torture.

“At every turn, professor Copelon made CUNY Law proud,” Anderson said. “She inspired a new legal framework for adjudicating and understanding gender-based crimes.”

Copelon announced her retirement in the fall of 2009. In CUNY Law Magazine’s fall 2009 issue, Copelon described her 26 years at the school as “a fabulous and privileged journey in education and advocacy working with amazing students, as well as partners and clients here and abroad.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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