John Van Ness Yates was born on December 18, 1779 in Albany, New York, the son of Robert Yates, later Chief Judge of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. He studied law in the office of John Vernon Henry, a leading member of the Albany bar, and once he had been admitted to the bar, he set up a very successful law office in Albany.
In 1806, when New York was required to raise a quota of 12,000 men to combat British aggression, John Van Ness Yates commanded a Light Infantry company that immediately offered its services to the President, and confirmed their immediate readiness.
Yates was appointed a master in Chancery in 1808, and, the following year, was the subject of a series of cases, In Re John Van Ness Yates, involving a jurisdictional tussle between the New York Supreme Court of Judicature and the New York Court of Chancery. Upon the conclusion of this litigation, Yates sued the Chancellor, seeking the monetary penalty provided under the Habeas Corpus Act (Yates v Lansing). Although Yates did not prevail, the case established the principle that a judge of a court of general jurisdiction cannot be called upon to answer in a civil action for an error of judgment in any matter within his jurisdiction. In 1816, with Aaron Burr as co-counsel, Yates represented the plaintiff in Gardiner v The Trustees of the Village of Newburgh, et al.
John V. N. Yates served as New York Secretary of State from 1818 to 1826, and was appointed by the Legislature to add notes and references to the revised laws of New York. His work was acclaimed and he also published Select Cases Adjudged in the Courts of the State of New York, Containing the Case of John V. N. Yates and the Case of the Journeymen Cordwainers (New York, 1811); A Collection of Pleadings and Practical Precedents, with Notes thereon (2d ed., 1837); History of the Province of New York (Albany, 1814); and, with Joseph W. Tillinghast, a Treatise on the Principles and Practice, Process, Pleadings, and Entries in Cases of Writs of Error (Albany, 1840).
A contemporary described John Van Ness Yates as a wit, a poet, a belles-lettres scholar, and a boon companion, whose joke was ever ready, and whose laugh was contagious.
John Van Ness Yates died Jan. 10, 1839, in Albany, NY.