A native of Westfield, New Jersey, James Hely was born in 1950. His family first settled in Westfield in 1915. After serving in World War II as a naval medic with the Marine Corps in the Pacific, his father worked as a doctor in his own family practice in Westfield. Hely graduated from Westfield High School and then attended Gettysburg College. He graduated from the Rutgers School of Law in Camden in 1980. He clerked in Union County for the Honorable Cuddie Davidson and then established a private law practice in Westfield. Hely served six terms on the Westfield Town Council. He went on to become a Union County judge.