Kagan protégé: Kerry staffer went from Texas A&M to Harvard and met a Supreme Court nominee on the way

As a humble first-year Harvard Law School student from small-town Texas, Jeremy Brandon recalls a generous Professor Elena Kagan entertaining a conversation with him about his concern over the B-plus she gave him in her Civil Procedure class. He now hopes to return the favor.

Brandon, a new legislative assistant and legal counsel for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), will be one of the senator’s staffers aiding him in moving Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination through the Senate later this month.

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But his relationship with the nominee goes back to 2003, when the Tahoka, Texas, native, who was accustomed to making A’s, got a shock to the system — if a B-plus can be called that — in then-Harvard Dean Kagan’s first-year class.

“I went and talked to her like some kind of loser,” said Brandon, 32. “I was just being a silly law student, but she was super nice. You know, beyond the classroom, she was just a really cool person.”

In the classroom, she was a tremendously impressive professor and a master of law school’s traditional Socratic teaching method, he said.

“She absolutely adhered to that tradition in every sense of the word,” Brandon said. “She just took what was a pretty boring subject matter and, by calling on people — cold-calling on people — in front of the class of 150 students … brought the best out in them.”

If Kagan was the epitome of a law school professor, Brandon represented the more unlikely of Harvard Law students. Born in a West Texas town of 3,000 residents, his destiny should have led him to become a cotton farmer, like the many family generations before him.

But after an elementary-school trip to Washington, his first trip “up north,” Brandon decided he would pursue a career in public service. Plus, he didn’t quite have the farmer’s touch.

“I probably cost my dad tens of thousands of dollars in damage,” he said, recalling the time he ruined one of his father’s tractors while driving it through the cotton fields to prepare them for sandstorms.

Brandon was the first in his family to attend college. At Texas A&M University, he graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, ranking first in his liberal-arts class of more than 3,500 (a population bigger than his hometown). He still had his hopes set on returning to D.C., but decided to attend law school first.

When Brandon and his parents began touring law schools, they stopped in Washington. He dragged his family to the Capitol so that he could have his picture taken next to the nameplates of Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), since he had all but decided to enroll at Harvard at that point. These were his new senators.

Harvard was a personal victory for him.

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“I was never good at sports at all in high school … in a town where it’s all about Friday Night Lights,” he said. “All the dads love going to football games and talking about it in the coffee shops … So what I focused on was what I was good at, which I guess was school.”

After law school Brandon clerked for a U.S. appeals court and segued into private practice, first in Washington and later in Dallas, partly to pay off his law school debt so that he could eventually realize his childhood dream of working in the capital. In Kerry he sees a lifelong public servant whom he’d like to emulate; in Massachusetts, an adoptive home state whose constituents he’s happy to serve as long as “they can get past the accent”; and in the Kagan nomination, an opportunity he never foresaw.

“I’m real excited to … have some sort of hand in working on the nomination,” he said.