Garvey is descended from a prominent Roman Catholic family in his native New Orleans, a grandson of Thomas Joseph Garvey and the former Loretta Kuntz. His father, James Garvey, Sr. (born December 1932), and his uncle, Lawrence "Larry" Garvey (1936-2010), established the former Radiofone paging company, based in Metairie, into a regional wireless telecommunications operation. The Garvey brothers launched the company in 1958 with the conversion of their parents' physician-calling business. In 1984, they demonstrated their cellular telephone service at the New Orleans World's Fair. From 1992 to 2000, early in his legal career, Garvey Jr., was counsel for Radiofone. In 2000, however, the Garvey brothers sold Radiofone for $400 million to SBC Communications. It was then sold again to the former Alltel company, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Lawrence Garvey was heavily involved in the right to life movement in New Orleans. Another Garvey uncle, Richard Joseph Garvey, Sr. (1926-2015), born in Pierce City, Missouri, moved to New Orleans at the age of three. He was a Loyola graduate and from 1966 to 1996 the Division C judge of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court.
In 1982, James Garvey, Jr., graduated from the Catholic-affiliated Jesuit High School in New Orleans. In 1987, he received a Bachelor of Business Administration from Loyola University New Orleans. In 1991, Garvey obtained a Master of Business Administration from Loyola and a Juris Doctorate that same year from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
Admitted to the bar in 1992, Garvey has been affiliated since 2006 with the Metairie office of the firm, Hailey McNamara, with specialization in product liability, commercial transportation, personal property litigation, and insurance law. He handled numerous cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina. One of his law partners is his cousin, Richard J. Garvey, Jr. (born May 1958).
Garvey is a board member for the New Orleans chapter of Teach For America, a nonprofit organization which recruits college graduates to teach for at least two years in lower-income American communities. He also sits on the boards of the Jefferson Parish Education Foundation and the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission. He has been active with the Metropolitan Battered Women's Program and served as well on the Governor's Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Advisory Board. Garvey is a member of Phi Delta Phi, the international legal honor society.
Garvey and his wife, Katharine Clarie Garvey (born September 1969), have four children.
Garvey won the BESE seat, an unpaid position but with reimbursement for expenses, without opposition in the nonpartisan blanket primary held on October 20, 2007. The position opened when Republican Penny Dastugue, the wife of former State Representative Quentin D. Dastugue, did not seek reelection. In the 2011 primary, Garvey won a second term by defeating two opponents, fellow Republican Sharon Hewitt of Slidell in St. Tammany Parish, and the No-Party candidate Lee Price Barrios (born 1947), a Baton Rouge native, a former manuscript assistant to the author Walker Percy, and a retired teacher for seventeen years who resides in Abita Springs, also in St. Tammany Parish. Garvey polled 57,910 votes (58.4 percent); Hewitt, 29,483 (29.7 percent); Barrios, 11,856 (12 percent).
On October 15, 2015, The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that PAC-Empower Louisiana had allocated about $818,000 to the BESE races. The PAC members include Alice and Jim Walton, Wal-Mart heirs who reside in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Eli Broad of Los Angeles, California. Four candidates in eight districts, including Garvey, were declared "acceptable" to Empower Louisiana; Garvey received $230,459 from the group, the most of any in the state. Another report placed his independent expenditure PAC contributions at $217,493 from independent expenditure PACS.
A supporter of teachers unions, Barrios opposes what she calls excessive reliance on standardized testing, the Common Core State Standards initiative, charter schools, and state Education Superintendent John C. White, backed by outgoing Governor Bobby Jindal who was formerly affiliated with Teach for America. Garvey supports standardized tests, Common Core, charter schools, and Superintendent White. Garvey favors the use of pupil standardized test results as the major criteria for the annual evaluation of teachers. He stresses parental choice and the establishment of an early childhood education system.
In February 2015, Garvey called for an early review of the Common Core standards to seek consensus: "That is something that I have been pushing behind the scenes." BESE requires a review every seven years; the compromise plan moved up the review by one year. "We still have the authority on what is in our standards. We have not given up any control to the feds [U.S. government] despite what some people have been claiming to the contrary," Garvey added. Barrios disagreed with Garvey on key policy issues. Garvey predicted that voters will benefit from the contrasting views of the candidates: "If I have to run against someone, I would like it to be a clear choice for the public."
As the sitting board vice president, Garvey won his third term on the board against Lee Barrios, who ran in 2015 as a Republican. Garvey outspent Barrios $218,460 to $2,886. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry contributed $40,000 to Garvey; departing BESE president Chas Roemer gave him $2,500. The bulk of Garvey's funding was left over from the 2011 race; he raised $21,200 in nine contributions between July to September 2015.
Common Core supporters won most of the races statewide though one opponent, interim member Mary Johnson Harris of Shreveport, backed by the group "Flip BESE", led her District 4 race and is headed to a runoff election on November 21.
Garvey polled 84,447 votes (71 percent) to Barrios' 34,487 (29 percent). In the same 2015 primary in which Garvey defeated Barrios, his other former opponent from 2011, Sharon Hewitt, was elected to the District 1 seat in the Louisiana State Senate vacated by the retiring A. G. Crowe. Hewitt handily defeated her intra-party rival, former State Representative Pete Schneider of Lacombe.
Garvey is a campaign contributor to his fellow New Orleans area Republicans David Vitter, the U.S. senator who is running for governor in 2015, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana's 1st congressional district.