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.