Last week, Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried — a former U.S. solicitor general and associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — announced he would retire on July 1, 2024, following a sabbatical leave in the spring semester.
Fried’s former students and colleagues — including HLS Dean John F. Manning ’82 and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — joined his final class to pay tribute to his career as one of Harvard’s longest serving professors. Breyer, now a professor at the Law School, was a student in Fried’s first class in 1961.
“What do I plan next? What I always do here, except for the classes. I write, I go to workshops, I read my colleagues’ work, I comment on it, and then I write my own work,” Fried said. “I’ve just completed a book, for which I’m looking for a publisher, and I don’t think I ought to have any difficulty in that respect, but it’s not there yet.”
Fried, born in 1935 into a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, moved to England with his family in 1939 to flee Nazi persecution. They settled down in the United States two years later.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1956, Fried attended Oxford University and Columbia Law School. He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II for one year before moving to Cambridge at the age of 26 to teach at HLS.
Former University President Derek C. Bok — then a professor at the Law School — remembered reaching out to Fried at the time as another recent law school graduate who was close in age.
“He was unusually erudite for a young professor. His interests were then — and remained always — extremely broad, going well beyond law into all sorts of other subjects,” Bok said. “He’s always been great company.”
A renowned conservative legal scholar, Fried has served as faculty adviser to Harvard’s chapter of the Federalist Society for more than 40 years. Fried fondly recalled attending debates held by the conservative and libertarian legal organization, describing the students as being “the most courteous and well-spoken people you could imagine.”
In recent years, Fried, a longtime Republican, has spoken about changing his mind and breaking from the conservative mainstream — having voted for the Democratic nominee in the last four presidential elections.
“The Trump people, they’re angry and they’re hostile,” Fried said.
He has also diverged from other conservatives on the topic of abortion, believing that the right to abortion should be legally protected. Fried, who in 1989 argued to the Supreme Court that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, wrote in a 2021 New York Times op-ed that he had changed his mind and now believed that overturning abortion rights would be an act of “constitutional vandalism.”
Colin W. Kubacki — a former student of Fried’s who now serves as one of his teaching fellows — spoke highly of Fried’s devotion to the classics. He described how Fried would often “slip into” Latin during lectures and had what Kubacki described as a “massive command of the liberal arts.”
Kubacki called Fried one of the last remaining figures in an outgoing generation of thinkers, which — after last week — Kubacki felt had come to an end.
“Charles Fried left. Henry Kissinger died. Don Kagan is dead. The smart set in the sort of neoconservative revolution have now exited the state,” Kubacki said. “There is now an era that is entirely in the past, and it’s not one that will come back to us for better or worse.”