Edward Koch was a sometimes polarizing figure during the 12 years he served as New York City’s mayor, but legal observers praised his efforts to remove politics as a factor in judicial appointment.

Koch, who died on Feb. 1 at the age 88 of congestive heart failure, gave real authority to an advisory panel that screened candidates for Family, Criminal and interim Civil court positions. He also insisted that his nominees be approved by the New York City Bar.

In the process, he opened the judiciary to many talented attorneys with no political influence who otherwise would have had little chance to sit on the bench.

In interviews following his death, many expressed their gratitude.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog (See Profile) in Brooklyn, who was named to Criminal Court by Koch in 1983, said he never thought he would become a judge. Those were positions that went to older men at the end of their careers as a reward for partisan activities, he said.

"All of a sudden, [Koch] was looking for young people, people still energetic who wanted to be in public service," he said.

Firetog recalled that at his interview with Koch, the mayor was "such a presence, at the same time, so relaxed."

Koch asked Firetog what he would do if a young attorney appearing before him was making a mistake. Firetog responded that he would not "play games" but would stop the attorney and ask him if that’s what he really wanted to.

File photo of Edward Koch swearing in city judges on March 22, 1983. Second from left is Neil Firetog, now an acting Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn; fifth from left is Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former acting justice in Manhattan.   Harry Hamburg/Getty Images

Koch "sort of smiled at me and I knew I had a good shot," said Firetog. "I knew he was looking for people who weren’t going to let young attorneys screw up."

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said he faced "serious questions" from Koch and his advisers when he was being considered for Criminal Court in 1986, "but the thing I took most [from the interview] was how comfortable he made me feel… He got up and walked across the room and greeted me at door. It was something that really stood out to me."

According to the Corporation Counsel’s Office, Koch made 175 judicial appointments during his three terms; 51 of his appointees are still on the bench.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) said it was no accident that some of the leading lights of the judiciary in New York during the past generation got their start from Koch.

The screening process he started "has produced hundreds of outstanding judges over the past decades, and will continue to do so for years to come," Lippman said in a statement. "All New Yorkers owe him a debt of gratitude for this enduring reform."

Koch was "enormously proud" of the appointment process, said Robert Keating, criminal justice coordinator to Koch and vice chairman of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advisory committee.

Historically, the bench was "a major source of patronage" for political leaders, said Keating, but Koch "totally and dramatically changed it. It was popular among good-government types, but I don’t think there was a groundswell that made it politically advantageous for him to do it. He just thought it was the right thing to do."

Keating said Koch’s successors as mayor have followed his lead with minor changes.

"It was really a national example and the shining example of merit selection when it works," Keating said.

Victor Kovner, Koch’s one-time partner, was on a judicial screening panel for mayor Abraham Beame before serving as vice chairman of Koch’s committee.

Koch poses in 2008 with, clockwise from top left, then Court of Appeals Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, Acting Supreme Court Justice Judy Harris Kluger, Appellate Division, Second Department Justice L. Priscilla Hall, and Acting Supreme Court Justice Alan Marrus.   NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

"There was no outreach under Beame," said Kovner. "But Koch wanted us to go out and encourage people to apply. Support of merit selection went way back with Koch. Mayor Beame did not have that same orientation."

Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, recently retired after 18 years on the Court of Appeals, said that in her office at Greenberg Traurig is a photo of her and Koch after her 1978 appointment to Criminal Court.

"He gave me my start in the judiciary," said Ciparick, who was only 36 at the time. "I’ll always be indebted to him for that."

She added that no one asked her about her political activities.

"It was a very straightforward process," said Acting Supreme Court Justice Judy Harris Kluger (See Profile), director of policy and planning for the court system. "No one felt they had to have necessary political connections. The perception before then was you had to have them."

Kluger was the Criminal Court bureau chief for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office when she was tapped by Koch. She has a photo in her chambers of Koch swearing her in surrounded by her family.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Alan Marrus (See Profile) is celebrating his 30th year on the bench this year.

"Before Koch was mayor, the general practice was for the mayor to appoint people on the basis of their political connections," Marrus said. "They had to be of the same party as the mayor and referred or at least approved by political leaders in the party."

Marrus was among 60 Koch appointees who attended a 2008 dinner to recognize Koch.

"When we honored him, it was an extraordinary event," Marrus said. "I know of no other public official that a group of judges chose to honor because of his appointments to the bench. The outpouring of affection was tremendous. He reveled in it."

Firetog said he had two photos with Koch: one documenting Firetog’s swearing in and one from the dinner. Both have been kept at home, but since the news of Koch’s death, Firetog said he was thinking about bringing them into the office.

"He was the inspiration for a generation of judges," said Firetog.

Nevertheless, Koch did not spare the judiciary his famously acid tongue when he disagreed with their decisions.

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge, recalled that Koch came to him for a favor at a time when the mayor was being especially critical.

Koch complained that Riker’s Island was overflowing with prisoners from the crack-cocaine epidemic and he wanted a Criminal Court "lobster shift" to arraign defendants more quickly.

The mayor asked Wachtler to intercede with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

"I told him I would speak to D.A. Morgenthau on his behalf, but only if he would stop beating up on the judiciary," Wachtler said. "Morgenthau was cooperative, around the clock arraignments were instituted in the city, and—true to his word—Koch no longer used the judiciary as a populist punching bag."

Koch is also credited with improving the professionalism of the Corporation Counsel’s Office. He wrote in a 2008/2009 New York Law Review article that the city needed more competent legal representation if it was to confront the fiscal challenges it faced.

"It was not viewed as a really professional office," said Michael Cardozo, Bloomberg’s corporation counsel. "There were a lot of political appointments and not a lot of merit appointments. Today, we pride ourselves on being an absolutely non-political office. We hire people absolutely, solely on the merits."

"Despite the changes in mayors over the years, the Law Department today is essentially Ed Koch’s Law Department," said Jeffrey Friedlander, the current first assistant corporation counsel who started working for the Law Department during the Koch years.

Another top official in the office, appeals division chief Leonard Koerner, said Koch deferred to the judgment of his Law Department, even when politically sensitive cases were involved.

"I don’t think he fancied himself as a lawyer when he was mayor," said Koerner, who joined the Law Department in 1967. "He was certainly a good lawyer. He had excellent judgment and was able to discuss complex legal issues. But he didn’t see himself as making the legal decision. Whether he agreed or not, he deferred to the corporation counsel. He let people do their jobs and he had confidence in the people he had working for him."