Born in New York City, Cates served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War. Cates graduated from Dartmouth College and received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951. Cate served as a Dane County, Wisconsin assistant district attorney. He then served in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1959 and 1960 and later on the Madison, Wisconsin school board. In 1973, Cates served as one of the lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee concerning the impeachment of President Richard Nixon because of the Watergate scandal.
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