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.