Harvard Law School’s Charles Fried Remembered as ‘Ebullient’ Professor Who ‘Loved Teaching’

A lifelong scholar of law and a longtime HLS professor who served as a U.S. solicitor general under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Charles Fried died on Jan. 23 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88.
By S. Mac Healey and Saketh Sundar

Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried died last month 88.
Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried died last month 88. By Courtesy of Harvard Law School

During lectures, longtime Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried was known to do everything from randomly slip into Latin to quoting stories of British officers from World War II.

“He has this encyclopedia, gentlemanly knowledge, and this massive command of the liberal arts that simply does not exist anymore,” recalled Colin W. Kubacki, one of Fried’s former teaching fellows, in a December interview with The Crimson.

Katie Biber, a former member of HLS’s Federalist Society for which Fried was an advisor, told another instance of Fried’s curiosity.

She wrote in a statement released by the group that “at a Federalist Society dinner in Cambridge a few years ago, he approached me during dessert — ‘Katie, I would be greatly appreciative if we could have a call where you explain to me this new thing: bitcoin.”

“His breadth of understanding and curiosity are limitless,” she wrote.

A lifelong scholar of law and a longtime HLS professor who served as a U.S. solicitor general under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Charles Fried died on Jan. 23 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88.

From Czechoslovakia to Cambridge

Fried was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on April 15, 1935, to a Jewish family. His early life was influenced by his father, a vice president at an arms and automotive corporation, who was deeply patriotic for Czechoslovakia.

In anticipation of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Fried’s family left the country in 1939, initially relocating to England, before moving to the U.S. in 1941.

“I am a refugee. I left Czechoslovakia with Hitler as my travel agent in 1939,” Fried said at a 2023 panel at HLS. “Then we were going to go back, then Stalin came and the Communists came, and we never went back.”

Fried completed his undergraduate studies at Princeton University, graduating in 1956 with a degree in modern languages and literature.

Fried continued in the sphere of academia for the next five years. Following Princeton, he attended the University of Oxford, earning a bachelor’s and master’s in law by 1960.

Fried completed his legal education at Columbia Law School, earning a J.D. in 1961, where he received the Ordronaux Prize in Law, awarded to the student with the highest academic average in each graduating class.

After his studies, Fried served as law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II from 1960 to 1961, before joining HLS faculty as an associate professor in 1961. Among his first students was Stephen G. Breyer, a future Supreme Court justice.

Fried received a full professorship in 1965 and was appointed to an endowed chair in 1981.

Former Harvard University President Derek C. Bok became friends with Fried when they were amongst the youngest professors at HLS.

“He was unusually erudite for a young professor,” he said in a December interview with The Crimson. “His interests were then and remained always extremely broad.”

Charles Fried was a longtime professor at the Harvard Law School.
Charles Fried was a longtime professor at the Harvard Law School. By Courtesy of Harvard Law School

Arguing Before the Supreme Court

In October 1985, Fried was named Solicitor General of the United States under the Reagan administration.

“I thought the idea of Hitler and Stalin made me quite allergic to the left,” Fried said at the 2023 panel. “That allergy took a form where I wanted to be rather in opposition and what better way to be in opposition than to go into the Reagan administration.”

His position was the fruit of a long relationship cultivated with Reagan. Between 1981 and 1985, Fried had held advisory and consulting positions in the office of the Attorney General and the Department of Transportation.

As solicitor general, Fried argued 25 cases in front of the Supreme Court. Fried was known for arguing Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which set the standard for admitting expert testimony in federal courts.

Fried described his enthusiasm and fondness for his time as Solicitor General in a December interview with The Crimson.

“It was so interesting,” he said. “And every day, there were things at the edge of the law and politics.”

Fried saw his arguments in front of the Supreme Court as a learning opportunity, likening it to a classroom setting.

“It’s not a professor with nine students,” he said in a 2013 talk at the Robert H. Jackson Center. “It’s nine professors with one student.”

Despite an illustrious career as solicitor general, Fried was known to be modest about his accomplishments with students.

“He worked on some incredibly fundamental cases during his time as SG, but also throughout his career, and you’d only hear about him from other professors,” said Philip Yan, a former teaching fellow for Professor Fried.

Fried returned to HLS after the end of Reagan’s presidency.

“I told the White House that I was going to leave the day that Reagan left, because I didn’t want to be sticking around trying to get the favor of a whole new bunch of people,” Fried said. “So I moved on and moved back here.”

Just a few years later in 1995, he was tapped by then-Massachusetts Governor William Weld — a former student — to serve on the State Supreme Court.

His nomination was a tumultuous four month battle as Fried had been criticized by labor, women’s, and civil rights groups for his conservative writings as solicitor general.

Fried said that his experience as a judge was unique.

“The chance to be a judge was an experience I’d not had,” he said. “I’d been on the other side of the lectern and I’d been teaching what judges do, but I hadn’t actually been one,” he said.

Fried served as justice while simultaneously teaching constitutional law at HLS as a distinguished lecturer. After leaving the court in 1999, he returned to a full-time position at HLS until his retirement in December 2023.

Changing Views

In recent years, Fried became known for his criticism of the modern Republican Party and the evolution of his political beliefs.

In the 1970s, while serving as a professor, Fried experienced difficulties with the prevailing political atmosphere at HLS. He observed what he characterized as a “radically left” movement, noting that there were Marxist study groups led by faculty members, of which he strongly disapproved.

Bok acknowledged the divisions on campus between progressive and conservative members of the faculty, such as Fried.

But, Bok said, Fried “never lost his very good humor and his interest in talking.”

“He was certainly a definite Republican when he came to the Law School,” Bok added. “I thought that added some needed balance, but he always had the capacity to be very open to discussion and disagreement.”

As solicitor general, Fried argued against the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, a stance he later reneged in a 2021 guest essay in the New York Times.

Before his death, Fried was finishing a book titled “Why I Changed My Mind” which described his personal evolution on critical issues.


Sarah Isgur, one of Fried’s former students, described a Thanksgiving road trip to New York with him in a written statement for the Federalist Society.

“For a law student, it felt like I had won a dare to be able to pluck one of the great legal minds from history for a road trip. But in truth, we didn’t talk much about the law,” she wrote.

“He packed us roast beef sandwiches, talked about how he listened to opera on the treadmill, and told me his favorite book was ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ as we sped down I-95,” she added.

Yan, one of Fried’s teaching fellows, reflected on the professor’s inclusive approach to education.

“He always made sure and made clear that he respected and valued our opinions, and he was always soliciting them out,” Yan said.

“He’s so lovable. He’s so warm. He’s so curious to learn more about you from my perspective as a student,” Yan added.

Breyer reflected on his former professors’ legacy in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

“From the time I was a student in his first class here (Criminal Law, 1961) until today (I attended his last class a few weeks ago), I was fully aware that he loved teaching, and helping, both his colleagues and his students,” Breyer wrote.

“He was ebullient. He had a good sense of humor,” Breyer added. “He was fun.”

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at mac.healey@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at saketh.sundar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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