Rees was born in New Orleans, the first of twelve children to Grover Joseph Rees, II (born August 14, 1927), and the former Patricia Byrne (born January 25, 1927). His father was in the military; so the family traveled around a great deal. His paternal grandparents, Grover Rees, I, and the former Consuelo Broussard, both of whom lived past the age of one hundred, made their home in Breaux Bridge in St. Martin Parish, and Rees spent many summers there. Grandfather Rees wrote an acclaimed history of Breaux Bridge. Rees, I, was a 1912 graduate of the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Harvard Law School in 1915.
Rees obtained his undergraduate degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he served a term as chairman of The Party of the Right (Yale) of the Yale Political Union. Rees, known as "Rocky," graduated from LSU's Paul M. Hebert Law School in 1978. From 1978 to 1979, he was a law clerk to then-Associate Justice Albert Tate Jr. of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Rees speaks French, Spanish, and Samoan.
Rees is married to Landai Nguyen Rees, who is of Vietnamese descent. He has a son by a previous marriage, Grover Joseph Rees, IV, and a daughter-in-law, the former Oksana Prokhvacheva. When Rees moved to assume his duties in East Timor, he told reporters that he expects eventually to retire to either Breaux Bridge or Lafayette, where his parents and most of his eight brothers and three sisters reside.
Rees was Chief Justice of the High Court of American Samoa from 1986 to 1991, having served under appointment from both Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. He is also a former legislative aide to Representative Christopher H. Smith, a Republican from Trenton, New Jersey, the leader of antiabortion forces in the U.S. House. Rees shares Smith's antiabortion position.
Rees furthermore is a strong defender of human rights in foreign policy. From 1995 to 2001, he was the staff director and chief counsel of the U.S. House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
American Samoa, where Rees was stationed for five years, became a landmark case in the United States' prosecution of human trafficking—the international practice of forcing people into servitude, slavery, peonage, child labor, or the sex industry.
Rees warned that anyone who exploits workers will face legal consequences in the United States. "If you're going to traffic women and men to slave-like situations, you better not do it in a place under the American flag," he said. As a congressional aide, Rees helped to draft the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
He was general counsel to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then part of the U.S. Justice Department, from 1991 to 1993, in the administration of the first President Bush. He stayed at the INS on for a time after Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, but when Clinton "turned back a boatload of Chinese refugees in California and sent them back to China, the president had Joseph's resignation on his desk the next day," said his mother, Patricia Rees.
Mrs. Rees said that her son, whom she addresses as "Joseph," has always been passionate about standing up for the rights of oppressed people.
In his first speech as ambassador, Rees said that the United States is pleased with the level of freedom and democracy achieved thus far in the Asian country. He urged greater involvement by the Timorese people in their new government. The goal of the leadership of East Timor, he said, must be to maintain security, promote democracy, and guarantee stability so as to attract critically needed foreign investments.
Rees worked on the Timor issue for several years prior to his appointment as ambassador. In 1998, four days after the fall of President Suharto, he visited President Gusmão at Cipinang prison in Jakarta, as part of Congressman Smith’s delegation. Rees again visited Gusmão when the latter was transferred to house arrest in Salemba in 1999.
Rees expresses optimism for the future of East Timor, a country that, he said, is "rising from the ashes." Rees said that he visited the island in 1996, while it was struggling with the issue of self-determination after some two decades of oppression by Indonesia, and again in 2000, just after a vote for independence.
East Timor was in 1996 "nothing but smoking ruins, but now there's a democratically elected president and parliament. Now there is hope," Rees predicted. The new Timorese government "is an experiment in an area of the world that for the most part has not embraced democratic forms of government. . . . It's like being at ground zero during the birth of a nation, like being in Boston in 1776," he said.
His view of human rights led Rees to support a full hearing to determine whether little Elián González (born 1993) should remain with relatives in Miami or be returned to communist Cuba. Rees decried the pre-dawn raid that resulted in Elián's capture by INS agents. The whole case was, he said, a triumph for Cuban President Fidel Castro. "Castro has actually been able to turn the Elián issue to his advantage across a broad field of ways." When asked why the Republican Congress did not rise up against the seizure of Elián, presumably against the boy's wishes, to communist governance, Reese cited public opinion polls. "Had the polls suggested that 70 or 80 percent of the people were appalled by the pre-dawn raid in Miami, you would have seen a different reaction in Congress," said Rees.
Rees said that he was stunned when he learned that the number of federal agents who participated in "Operation Reunion," the raid to seize Elián from his great uncle's home in Miami, included a total of 151 persons, 131 from the INS and 20 from the United States Marshal's office.
A former law professor and author
Prior to his move to Washington in 1986, Rees had served for seven years as an assistant professor at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. He wrote numerous law review articles, one of which declared the 1979 congressional vote to extend ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for three additional years to be unconstitutional. In that the ERA was not added to the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutionality of the extension.
In another law article, Rees argued for traditional constitutional law, rather than judge-made law in which the jurists often insert their personal legal and political views in the decisions.
Rees also served as a special counsel to then Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1986. He worked on judicial appointments. He attempted to find conservative judges who would overturn the liberal legacies of the Earl Warren and the Warren E. Burger courts but would do so without their own "activist" agenda. Rees was quoted in a column by the late Joseph Sobran as "bristling" at the use of the word "activist."
As he was finishing law school, Rees published a short campaign biography of then U.S. Representative David C. Treen, a fellow Republican who was then seeking the Louisiana governorship for a second time. In 1979, Treen was elected Louisiana's first Republican governor since Reconstruction: he served from 1980 to 1984. Rees titled his book Dave Treen of Louisiana. Treen was also Louisiana's first Republican congressman (1973–1980) of the 20th century. Rees was also a press assistant to Treen in 1973 and a member of the Young Republicans while he was in college.
In 2016, Rees was an unsuccessful candidate for Louisiana's 3rd congressional district seat in the United States House of Representatives. The position was vacated by Charles Boustany and won in a runoff election by Republican Clay Higgins, who defeated Scott Angelle, the chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission and a Democrat-turned-Republican.