William Atwood was born in England around 1652, the son of a leading English barrister. He graduated from Cambridge University and was admitted to the Inner Temple in December 1669. He was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1670, and called to the Bar in 1674. In the winter of 1674, he was appointed Master of Revels at Gray's Inn, a high honor.
Atwood received a Crown commission as Chief Judge of the Province of New York and on August 4, 1701, was sworn in as a member of the Governor's Council and as a Judge of the Court of Admiralty. The following day, he was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature. Almost immediately, he became the center of controversy due to misuse of his judicial office. His rulings in the treason trial of Col. Nicholas Bayard (1702) were infamous, and the court's sentence (that Bayard be hung, drawn and quartered) was overturned upon appeal to London. In November 1702, Atwood was suspended from office by Governor Cornbury and although a warrant had been issued for his arrest, he escaped and fled to England. There, he sought to justify his actions and be restored to office as Chief Judge. He died around 1709.
On April 3, 1704, Governor Cornbury and his Council, citing the delays occasioned by the shortness and infrequency of the sessions of the Supreme Court of Judicature during Atwood's tenure as Chief Judge, issued an ordinance detailing when the Supreme Court of Judicature should be in session. This system lasted until 1777.
Albany Law Journal 19 (1879).
Hamlin, Paul M., and Charles E. Baker. Supreme Court of Judicature of the Province of New York, 1691-1704. New York, 1959.