The son of Joseph and Maria Yates, Robert Yates was born in Schenectady, NY, on January 27, 1738. The oldest of 12 children, he received a classical education learning to be a surveyor, but later decided and later decided to pursue a career in law by becoming a clerk for with William Livingston. Yates was admitted to the New York bar in 1760 and thereafter resided in Albany. In 1765, he married Jannette Van Ness settling in Albany, New York. Together they had six children.
During the pre-Revolution years Yates counted himself a Radical Whigs, whose vigilance against corruption and emphasis on the protection of liberty in England appealed to many in the colonies. Once the Revolution broke out, Yates served on the Albany committee of safety and represented his county in four provincial congresses and in the convention of 1775-77. At the convention he sat on various committees, including the one that drafted the first constitution for New York State.
On May 8, 1777, Yates was appointed to New York's supreme court and presided as its chief justice from 1790 through 1798. While on the bench he attracted criticism for his fair treatment of Loyalists. Other duties included serving on commissions that were called to settle boundary disputes with Massachusetts and Vermont.
In the 1780s Robert Yates stood as a recognized leader of the Antifederalists. He opposed any concessions to the federal congress, such as the right to collect or impose duties, that might diminish the sovereignty of the states. Travelling to Philadelphia in May 1787 for the federal convention, he expected that the delegates would simply discuss revising the existing Articles. Yates was on the committee that debated the question of representation in the legislature, and it soon became apparent that the convention intended much more than modification of the current plan of union. On July 5, the day the committee presented its report, Yates and John Lansing (to whom Yates was related by marriage) left the proceedings. In a joint letter to Gov. George Clinton of New York, their reasons for early departure focused on the dangers of centralizing power in government, and urged opposition to adopting the Constitution. Yates continued to attack the Constitution and voted against ratification at the Poughkeepsie convention.
In 1789 Yates ran for governor of New York but lost the election. Three years after his retirement from the NY state supreme court, on September 9, 1801, he died, leaving his wife, Jannetje Van Ness Yates, and four of his six children. Though he had enjoyed a comfortable income at the start of his career, his capital had dwindled away until very little was left.