Alexandra Korry, a trailblazing Wall Street lawyer whose potent legal and moral rebuke as head of a civil rights panel helped spur the abolition of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates in New York City, died on Sept. 29 at her home in Westport, Conn. She was 61.
The cause was ovarian cancer, her husband, Robin Panovka, said.
Ms. Korry, one of the first women to be elected a partner in the mergers and acquisitions department of the prominent law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, coupled her corporate law work with nearly a decade of public service as head of the New York State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Under her stewardship, the committee issued reports that criticized the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy, intended to reduce the proliferation of guns, arguing that it was disproportionately directed at Black and Hispanic people.
And it concluded this year that disparities in state and local funding of education should be considered a civil rights issue because they denied equal opportunity to students in poorer, Black and Hispanic school districts.
Her committee had perhaps its greatest impact when, in December 2014, it issued a 68-page report finding that isolating inmates under 18 years old and even below 25 was not only ineffective but also harmful, and that the policy appeared to be applied disproportionately against Black, Hispanic and mentally ill inmates.
The findings, which followed articles in The New York Times about dysfunction at the jail on Rikers Island, helped galvanize the movement to eliminate solitary confinement in New York, which had been contested by inmate rights groups and the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
Momentum to end the policy was accelerated by the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx youth who was arrested when he was 16 for stealing a backpack, placed in solitary confinement on Rikers Island for two years while awaiting trial, and released in 2013 after the charges were dropped.
Publicity about the Browder became a catalyst behind the city’s decision in 2014 to ban solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds, and later for detainees under 22. (Months later, Mr. Browder committed suicide at his Bronx home.)
Bryanne Hamill, a retired Family Court judge who succeeded Ms. Korry as chairwoman of the advisory committee, said in an email: “Her testimony before the New York Board of Correction, on which I served at the time, and the committee’s in-depth report substantially contributed to the abolishment of solitary confinement for youth under 22 years of age in New York City jails.” The city is now required to provide young inmates with educational and developmental services.
Ms. Korry saw the issue as a moral one.
“Consigning children and young adults to the degradation of solitary confinement is inconsistent with any standard of decency,” she said when the committee’s report was released. “Subjecting Blacks and Latinos disproportionately to such terror is unconscionable.”
But her objections to the practice were even more far-reaching.
“My own view is that nobody should be subjected to solitary confinement,” she said in an interview last year with Duke Law magazine, published by her law school alma mater. “It is, to me, cruel and unusual punishment.”
Alexandra Davern Korry was born on March 11, 1959, in London to Edward and Patricia (McCarthy) Korry. Her father was a journalist who was later the United States ambassador to Ethiopia and Chile, countries in which Alexandra grew up until she was 12. Her mother was a granddaughter of Gov. Nathan L. Miller of New York, who held office from 1921 to 1923, and a descendant of Benjamin Franklin.
Ms. Korry earned a bachelor’s degree in 1979 at Harvard, where she was the managing editor of the student newspaper The Crimson and one of its first female editors. She received a master’s in international relations at the London School of Economics in 1980. After brief stints as a reporter for The Washington Post and Newsweek, she graduated in 1986 from the Duke University School of Law, where she met Mr. Panovka.
In addition to her husband, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, she is survived by two daughters, Rebecca and Sarah Panovka; her brother, Edward; and her sister, Colette Korry.
After law school, Ms. Korry worked for the consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York. She initially joined Sullivan & Cromwell to pay off her law school debt, she said, but became absorbed in the give-and-take of corporate practice. She was elected partner in the mergers and acquisitions group in 1993.
Ms. Korry advised Adelphia Communications on its sale to Time Warner and Comcast in 2006 and worked with InBev on its acquisition of Anheuser-Busch in 2008. Within Sullivan & Cromwell, she was credited with helping to make the firm more hospitable to employees who sought to balance work and family obligations.
Ms. Korry traced her commitment to civil rights to growing up abroad and becoming cognizant of “the huge advantages of being American.”
“In Ethiopia, we were living extremely well relative to the vast majority of the people,” she told the website lawdragon last year. “You’d see lepers in the streets. It was extreme poverty.
“I came to very much appreciate all the choices that many of us, not all of us, have in the U.S., relative to many people around the world,” she added. “I currently feel like there’s tremendous injustice in this society. There is ridiculous inequality between the rich and everybody else. And we all have an obligation to do something about it.”