With the votes all counted in two highly contested judicial races Tuesday night, Duncan Wheale moved past his challenger to become the newest Superior Court judge, while incumbent Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins easily beat his challenger.
The final unofficial results showed Mr. Wheale won his election with a three-county vote total of 18,796 (58 percent) for a seat on the Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court bench. He will preside over civil, felony criminal and domestic cases in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties. His opponent, attorney Michael Annis, gave Mr. Wheale a strong chase in the election, gathering 13,575 votes (42 percent) in the three counties.
In the State Court race in which only Richmond County voters cast ballots, the unofficial final results showed Judge Watkins with 15,128 votes (73 percent) compared with opponent Thomas "Tom" Tinley III's 5,599 votes (27 percent.)
Earlier in the evening when returns showed Judge Watkins held a comfortable lead over Mr. Tinley in the race, Judge Watkins said he felt personal relief and satisfaction. But he also thought the race meant more to the community, he said.
"I think, and I would like to feel, that this race is probably a pivotal point in local politics for the sole reason, I think, this symbolizes we're in a new era when the election of a candidate will be based on qualification and legitimate issues and not outside appearance or other superficial qualities," Judge Watkins said.
He and fellow Richmond Court State Judge Richard Slaby were appointed by Gov. Zell Miller last summer to fill two newly created judgeships.
Mr. Wheale, who had to campaign in three counties, did best among Richmond County voters who gave him a 62-percent lead over Mr. Annis. But in each of the three counties, Mr. Wheale won the majority of votes. The closest vote was in Columbia County where voters gave Mr. Wheale 52 percent of the vote compared with Mr. Annis' 48 percent.
"Obviously I feel real good, very thankful to God, my family and my partners," Mr. Wheale said Tuesday evening. "I'd be remiss if I didn't say I have a lot of respect and admiration for Mike (Annis) and his supporters for keeping the campaign clean."
Mr. Wheale will assume his post on the Superior Court bench on Jan. 1, earning a salary of $125,000. He will become the newest of seven Superior Court judges, a job opened this year when Judge Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. decided not to run for re-election. Instead, Judge Mulherin will join Judge Franklin Pierce as a senior judge for the judicial circuit.
The race between Mr. Wheale and Mr. Annis was the most expensive campaign for the locally contested judges seats. Mr. Wheale raised $71,757 and spent $119,186, according to his most recent financial disclosure. Mr. Annis raised $24,650 and spent $26,953, according to his disclosure.
In the Richmond County State Court race, Judge Watkins raised $34,190, compared with Mr. Tinley's $10,420.
Judge Watkins' next term on the State Court bench begins Jan. 1 when the salary for the job will be $83,000.
Judge Watkins, 39, practiced law in Augusta from 1991 to 1997 after duty with the Marine Corps, where he was a military court prosecutor. Gov. Miller appointed Judge Watkins to the State Court bench in 1997 along with fellow jurist, Judge Richard Slaby, who didn't face opposition in Tuesday's election.
Mr. Wheale, 51, has practiced law since 1976. Tuesday was his first bid for public office, although he has been active in community organizations.