Here Comes the Judge—Catherine Crier Now Presides at a News Desk

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Your Honor, here are the basic facts of the case. The woman in question wants to be a TV news anchor. She's smart (at the moment, she's a Texas judge), she's pretty (Ryan O'Neal once voted her one of the 10 most beautiful women at her college), and she can hold a decent conversation. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Oh, there is just one little thing. She doesn't have enough journalistic experience to fill a comma. What say you, Your Honor?

Had Catherine Crier ruled on this hypothetical situation in her Dallas courtroom, her judgment might have been a resounding no. But in real life, Crier herself is the inexperienced woman in question, and—proving that life can be stranger than fiction—last month she was hired away from the bench to co-anchor, with veteran Bernard Shaw, CNN's new evening newscast, The World Today.

When the new employee's name was announced, outraged broadcasters around the country waved their own credential-packed résumés in disbelief. Defending the decision, which CNN said was based on Crier's wit, intelligence and interviewing skills, Paul Amos, executive vice president for news programming, was moved to declare that Crier was not a "news bimbo."

Describing herself as more of a "news junkie," Crier, 35, insists she isn't fazed by her detractors. Dismissing talk of her brief modeling and acting stints during college, she says, "It's frustrating if the focus is my appearance, when I've spent my entire life pursuing academics." She draws parallels between the investigative nature of both journalism and jurisprudence and observes that "so many stories in the news revolve around the law."

Since The World Today debuted on Oct. 16 as CNN's effort to compete directly with the main networks, the program has increased ratings during the 6-7 P.M. time period by 80 percent—a jump more attributable to the San Francisco earthquake than to Crier's performance. USA Today called her "poised but overly studied." Even her hometown Dallas Morning News graded her a "fiat C."

Facing the criticism of her peers is new for Crier, whose life has been filled with honors. One of three daughters of Dallas banker William Crier and his wife, Ann, Catherine raced through her childhood astride her family's Arabian horses, winning several national riding championships. Graduating from high school at 16, she received a bachelor's from the University of Texas and her law degree from Southern Methodist University by age 22.

Next Crier headed for the D.A.'s office, where her first trial was a prostitution case. "I was about the color of this blouse throughout the trial," she says, pointing to her scarlet top. She won the case—and many others—and then moved briefly to a private firm, where she practiced with her husband, Michael Barrett, whom she divorced in 1987 after a nine-year marriage. (Crier says she currently has a boyfriend in Dallas but won't reveal any details.) Then, at 29, Crier leapt into politics by running for state civil court on the Republican ticket, becoming the youngest woman ever elected a district judge in Texas.

Earning a reputation as a "no-nonsense" jurist, Crier nevertheless tried to humanize the bench, once presiding over a mock grade-school trial based on the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin." Dallas attorney Michael Pezzulli says that in the courtroom "she was this stern person sitting in a black robe, hair pulled back. But in her chambers, when she took off her robe, underneath she was wearing a silk tiger-print blouse and a black leather miniskirt."

Before long, Crier was enjoying the limelight, popping up as a legal expert on Today and getting a mention in Vogue. After reelection last year, she began looking for a change and was urged by a friend, a former CBS recruiter, to make a demo tape and send it to CNN. Spotting what he calls "a natural" in Crier, CNN president Burt Reinhardt decided she should join Bernard Shaw on The World Today.

Thus far, Shaw hasn't been exactly effusive with praise. "I think her performance has been very adequate," he says evenly. Did he expect someone with more news experience? "I won't respond to that." No, he's not kicking up his heels, but that's all right. If there's one thing Crier knows, it's how verdicts can be overturned.

—Jeannie Park, Michael Mason in Atlanta

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