Talley Wells Talley Wells.
Photo: Robin Rayne Nelson

The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice has found a new executive director, Talley Wells, to succeed founding director Sharon Hill, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

The legal nonprofit, which tackles systemic injustice through law and policy reform, hired Wells from the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, where he heads the Disability Integration Project, helping people with disabilities get the services they need to live in the community instead of institutions.

Wells has worked to change how Georgia treats people with disabilities over his eight years directing the project, which is an outgrowth of Atlanta Legal Aid’s landmark 1999 Supreme Court victory in disability law, Olmstead v. LC & EW.

“System change—that is what attracted me to Georgia Appleseed,” Wells said. “The sweet spot in my advocacy is taking an individual ‘in the trenches’ situation where I’ve advocated for folks and then working toward system change.”

Unlike Atlanta Legal Aid and other nonprofits representing individuals who need legal help, Georgia Appleseed enlists lawyers from the private bar to contribute their time and talent pro bono for ambitious policy interventions that require in-depth research and interviews with stakeholders.

“Appleseed has changed Georgia for the better in some of the most critical areas that impact low-income and minority populations,” Wells said. “I can’t be more excited than to get to work with lawyers at each of the participating firms, many of whom are my friends, to make the policy changes that Georgia needs.”

After Hill announced she’d be leaving, Georgia Appleseed’s board conducted an extensive search for someone with “visionary leadership” ability, said the board chair, John Fleming, who is the pro bono partner at Eversheds Sutherland.

“Talley has got that, big-time, and also networking and fundraising skills. He is well-known in the Atlanta legal community,” Fleming said, adding that Eversheds Sutherland tried to hire Wells when he was a summer associate there during law school at Duke University—“but his passions were elsewhere.”

The other board members on the search committee were Harold Franklin of King & Spalding, Taylor Daly of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and Paula Frederick, the general counsel of the State Bar of Georgia.

Wells joined Atlanta Legal Aid in 2000, spending nine years as a staff attorney before taking on the disability integration project from Sue Jamieson, the lead attorney for the Olmstead case, which established the civil right of people with mental disabilities to receive state support to live in the community instead of being institutionalized.

Atlanta Legal Aid has been active in the effort to transform the state’s mental health system, Wells said, “from an institutional system started in the 1800s to a 21st century system about integration, recovery and independence.”

Under his leadership, Atlanta Legal Aid is one of the amici to an ongoing settlement agreement that the Justice Department reached with the state in 2009 over the care of those with mental illnesses. The DOJ investigated Georgia’s seven psychiatric hospitals after a 2007 Atlanta-Journal Constitution investigation found over 100 people had died in them.

The state has invested more than $200 million on people with disabilities through the Department of Behavioral Health, formed as part of the settlement, Wells said, including housing vouchers for about 3,000 people.

The settlement oversight period concludes in December, he said—but Georgia has plenty of work to do still—especially in helping children. “This was just about adults in institutions,” he explained.

Changing Georgia

Hill led Georgia Appleseed’s launch in 2005 with $200,000 in seed money and a staff of one, Theresa Brower, who was both fundraiser and project manager. The group’s annual budget is now about $1 million, depending on the grants it lands, Fleming said, and it has a full-time staff of six.

Wells will join the group on Nov. 30 to have a month’s transition time before Hill steps down.

Since Hill became executive director, Georgia Appleseed has tackled some big projects statewide.

In what Fleming called “one of the triumphs of Sharon’s tenure,” she led the effort to overhaul Georgia’s outmoded Juvenile Code, which the Legislature passed five years ago. Georgia Appleseed is wrapping up a four-year assessment of the code changes, Fleming said, with volunteers talking to stakeholders all over the state to see what adjustments might be needed.

The group has undertaken another project to dismantle the “school to prison pipeline.” It has started initiatives in schools around the state to use what it calls “positive behavioral interventions and supports” that keep kids in class, instead of punitive discipline like suspension.

One early project, the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, spun off this year to become its own nonprofit providing legal services to heirs property owners. Hill enlisted about 250 volunteers in 2008 to start the project. Their research found that about 10 percent of the land in Georgia is heirs property, which is land passed down without a legally designated owner—an unstable form of ownership that hampers families from building generational wealth.

Georgia Appleseed’s newest project, called Race, Law Enforcement & the Law, arose after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and other police-involved shootings. The group’s volunteers have engaged stakeholders from all sides—prosecutors, police and community organizers—to make changes such as implementing more uniform codes and practices for the state’s 628 law enforcement agencies.

The group also has advocated for changes to the law. Georgia was the only state that allowed police officers facing criminal charges to testify in grand jury proceedings over civilian shootings until a 2016 law, which Georgia Appleseed worked on, curtailed the privilege.

It’s been a year of change for Georgia Appleseed. Rob Rhodes, the longtime director of projects, left earlier this year, and the group replaced him with Allison Soulen, who’d headed a Virginia nonprofit providing legal aid to immigrants, Just Neighbors, that she helped found two decades ago.

The group also has relocated from office space at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton to digs at Taylor English Duma.