Charles Fried, lawyer who broke with conservatives, dies at 88

Charles Fried, a conservative legal scholar who argued against abortion rights and affirmative action before the Supreme Court as President Ronald Reagan’s top lawyer — but who later rejected the right-wing push of the conservative legal movement, calling the current high court “reactionary” — died Tuesday in to his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 88 years old.

His death was announced by Harvard Law School, where Mr. Fried taught thousands of students beginning in 1961, including the future Supreme Court Justice, Stephen G. Breyer, and the future Governor of Massachusetts, William F. Weld.

Mr. Fried (pronounced “liberated”) was the son of Jewish parents who fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 to escape Nazism, and whose hopes of returning home after the war were dashed by the fall of the Iron Curtain. He traced his political conservatism to that background and to the hard-left atmosphere that prevailed at Harvard Law School in the 1970s, which, he recalled, included Marxist study groups led by the faculty.

He became “quite allergic to the left side,” Mr. Fried said law school panel last year. “And that allergy took a form in which I wanted to be quite the opposition. And what better way to be in the opposition than to join the Reagan administration?”

In 1985, as attorney general — representing the White House before the Supreme Court — Mr. Fried argued that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. But later he changed his mind. As a Republican-appointed supermajority of the high court looked set to overturn Roe, Mr. Fried wrote in an opinion column for The New York Times in 2021: “To strike down Roe now would be an act of constitutional vandalism.”

His reasoning was that the 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, more firmly established abortion rights than when he opposed it for the Reagan White House.

At a panel at Harvard last year, titled “Why I Changed My Mind,” Mr. Fried said that his intellectual evolution from conservative to moderate was also shaped by conversations with his grown children and grandchildren. “We talk, and I have to listen as well as talk,” he said. “So it changed me during that.”

Although Mr. Fried testified in support of the 2005 confirmation of John G. Roberts as chief justice, becoming an outspoken critic of the Roberts court for its rulings on limiting voting rights, unions, and campaign finance reform, as well as its refusal to limit blatantly partisan gerrymandering.

He called those decisions “reactionary, not conservative,” in the classic sense of conservatism as respect for precedent and faith in change that is gradual rather than radical.

Justice Breyer, who was appointed to the high court by President Bill Clinton and retires in 2022, suggested in a statement that Mr. Fried was willing to change his views because of his innate intellectual honesty.

“Charles loved ideas,” he said. “He would try them out on his colleagues and friends, rejecting some, developing others and always listening to what others thought.”

Fried’s academic interests included how moral and political philosophy illuminates legal problems; he wrote several books on the subject, including The Anatomy of Values ​​(1970) and Right and Wrong (1978).

A longtime Republican who has advised the Harvard chapter of the conservative Federalist Society for 40 years, Mr. Fried has been a particularly vocal critic of President Donald J. Trump’s disdain for the courts and the law, as well as for the Justice Department under his second attorney general, William P. Barr.

Mr. Fried and other Republican and conservative lawyers, members of a group called Checks & Balances, publicly blamed Mr. Barr for defending Mr. Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and, in 2019, to pressure Ukraine — which led to the first impeachment of Mr. Trump.

“People who claim to be conservative today claim loyalty to this totally lawless, ignorant, infamous president,” said Mr. Fried to The Times in 2019. He revealed in The Boston Globe in 2016 that he planned to vote for Hillary Clinton.

During the second impeachment trial of Mr. Trump, for inciting rebellion on January 6, 2021, Mr. Fried joined other constitutional lawyers in a statement calling claims by Mr. Trump’s defense team that his conduct was protected by the First Amendment “legally frivolous. ”

Charles Fried was born as Karel Fried in Prague on April 15, 1935 to Antonio and Martha Fried. His father was a senior vice president at Škoda Works, a manufacturer of heavy machinery and weapons. The family fled to England — “with Hitler as my travel agent,” as Mr. Fried once said — where they lived for two years before moving to New York in 1941.

(When the Communist government in Prague fell in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, Mr. Fried joined other Western lawyers in advising the Czech government on a new constitution.)

After graduating from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, he received a bachelor’s degree in modern languages ​​and literature from Princeton in 1956. He studied law and philosophy on a Fulbright scholarship to Oxford University, then graduated from Columbia Law School in 1960.

He clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II, and in 1961, at the age of 26, he joined Harvard Law School. Mr. Breyer was in his first criminal law lecture.

The Reagan administration recruited Mr. Fried when he was 50, based in part on an op-ed he wrote for the Reagan campaign in 1980 on, among other things, how to voice opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in a presidential debate.

In addition to his years as Solicitor General, from 1985 to 1989, and serving as Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from 1995 to 1999 (appointed by his former student, Governor Weld), Mr. Fried spent nearly 60 years at Harvard Law School.

In 1993, while at Harvard, he argued the Supreme Court case, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which set the standard for expert scientific testimony in federal courts.

His survivors include his wife, Anne Summerscale, whom he married in 1959; son Gregory, professor of philosophy at Boston College; and daughter Antonia Fried, a psychologist.

Mr. Fried announced his retirement in December, although he said he planned to continue to consider legal and political issues of the day.

“What do I plan next?” he said. “What I always do here, apart from classes. I write, I go to workshops, I read the work of my colleagues, I comment, and then I write my work.”

That same month, in a column in The Harvard Crimson, Mr. Fried defended the university’s president, Claudine Gay, after she came under fire for her response to anti-Semitism on campus.

He continued to defend her after the attacks expanded to include the scientific data of Dr. Gaya. He told The Times that he rejected the accusations of plagiarism against Dr. Gaya because they were part of an “extreme right-wing attack on elite institutions”.

dr. Gay resigned in January after further pressure and accusations of plagiarism.

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