William Hawley Atwell, Republican politician and federal judge, son of Capt. Benjamin and De Emma (Green) Atwell, was born at Sparta, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1869, and moved to rural Dallas County, Texas, with his parents in the 1870s. He attended public school at Hutchins until he entered Southwestern University at Georgetown in 1885; after graduating in 1889 he studied law in the office of Williams and Turney in Dallas and was admitted to the bar in 1890. He entered the University of Texas law school in fall 1890 and received a degree the following spring.
After establishing a practice at Dallas in 1891 Atwell was married to Susie Snyder, on December 7, 1892. Two sons were born to them. Atwell's father, a Union veteran of the Civil War, led him into Republican politics, and President William McKinley appointed him United States district attorney. He served until 1913 and returned to practice law in Dallas during the years of Democratic ascendancy under Woodrow Wilson. In 1922, while vacationing in Europe, Atwell was nominated to run against Governor Pat M. Neff by the state Republican convention in Fort Worth. During a time of agitation over the Ku Klux Klan in Texas politics, Atwell told reporters that the Klan was an outgrowth of failure to enforce the law. Whether his condemnation of the Klan helped or harmed him, he received but 73,329 votes, against his Democratic opponent's 334,199.
A month after Atwell's defeat, President Warren G. Harding appointed him United States district judge for the Northern District of Texas, which comprised 102 counties. He assumed the judgeship in January 1923, and, though he retired in 1958, he remained a judge in special cases until his death. He became well known for his rigorous style, which countenanced no dilatory tactics on the part of the bar, and for his strict adherence to duty and constitutional precepts. In his later years he was sharply critical of the United States Supreme Court because of its civil rights rulings. In 1956 he said from the bench that the 1954 decision concerning desegregation of public schools had been "based on sociological opinion rather than law." He told reporters in 1957 that he considered segregation "neither immoral nor unconstitutional."
Atwell was long active in Dallas civic affairs and served as city zoo commissioner under Mayor William H. Holland. During 1925–26 he was national grand exalted ruler of Elks. He also wrote several books: A Treatise on Federal Criminal Law Procedure (1911), Salmagundi (1929), Charges to Juries (1929), an Autobiography (1935), Some Provocative Decisions and Other Fundamentals (1945), and Wandering and Wondering (1946). Atwell died in Dallas on December 22, 1961. His family dedicated the William Hawley Atwell Chair of Constitutional Law at Southern Methodist University School of Law to his memory.