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Administrative Law Research

Administrative and Regulatory Law Research Guide


Getting Started

This guide describes the organization of federal administrative law materials - and how to find them. 

For a more in-depth discussion on administrative law, check out a treatise:

The Georgetown Law Library provides an excellent primer on administrative law research.

Making Regulations

Types of Content

Administrative law research has three distinct but related content areas:

  1. Substantive administrative law and the underlying powers and procedures of administrative agencies
  2. Regulatory activities and actions of administrative agencies, including agency regulations, decisions and reports
  3. Issuances of the President, namely Executive Orders

Administrative Agencies

Administrative agencies draw authority from both Congress and the Executive. Agencies are typically created by Congress through the enactment of "enabling" statutes. Each agency is as unique in structure as its enabling statute. An agency may:

  • Promulgate regulations designed to implement law or policy
  • Issue orders to describe the final disposition of agency action
  • Issue licenses, permits, or other permissions
  • Issue advisory opinions with binding, non-precedential advice
  • Issue decisions arising from a quasi-adjudicative process

An agency may be called:

  • Board, i.e., National Labor Relations Board
  • Commission, i.e., Securities Exchange Commission
  • Corporation, i.e., Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • Authority, i.e., Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Department, i.e., Department of Transportation
  • Administration, i.e., Social Security Administration
  • Agency, i.e., Environmental Protection Agency

The Administrative Procedure Act requires that agencies follow certain steps when promulgaing rules:

  • Publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register
  • Take comments from “interested persons” on the proposed rule
  • Publish a final rule in the Federal Register after considering those comments
  • Make the rule effective not less than 30 days after it is published.   

A compiled legislative history of the Administrative Procedure Act is available in HeinOnline.  Further laws affecting agency procedure can be explored in the Federal Register Laws Index.

Agency Websites

Agency websites are a good place to begin your administrative law research. They often provide:

  • Enabling statutes
  • Related regulations
  • Administrative decisions
  • Reports
  • Press releases

When navigating an agency website, look for headings like:

  • Rules & Regulations
  • Legal / Laws Library
  • Enforcement
  • Interpretations

To find an agency, Google the agency's name or search USA/Directory.  To find defunct agency website materials, including helpful reports, use the Cyber Cemetery.

Executive Orders & Other Docs

Executive materials are found in Title 3 of the CFR.  Presidential Documents are found in the back of each day’s Federal Register.  In addition, the White House website offers a great amount of information and access to Executive documents.  The Office of the Federal Register published a Guide to the Rulemaking Process, which can help you to identify useful information about the types of documents generated as part of the rulemaking process.

Executive Orders

Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents

Public Papers of the Presidents

Publishing Regulations

Federal Register

What is the Federal Register?

Each issue of the modern Federal Register contains these sections:

  • Contents and Preliminary Pages
  • CFR Parts Affected
  • Final Rules & Regulations
  • Proposed Rules
  • Notices
  • Presidential Documents
  • Corrections

Get the Federal Register

Note:  The first edition of the Federal Register was published March 14, 1936.

Find Federal Register Citations

  • Agency websites
  • Source notes from the CFR
  • Citator from Statute
  • Citation from Treatise
  • Full-text keyword searching
  • Indexes to the Fed. Reg.
  • Contact agency staff by email or phone


Cite to the Federal Register

Sample Citation:  Investment Adviser Performance Compensation, 77 Fed. Reg. 10,358 (Feb. 22, 2012) (to be codified at 17 C.F.R. pt. 275).

Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)

What is the CFR?

The CFR is organized into 50 titles which represent broad topics (typically bearing the name of the issuing agency). Chapters are further subdivided into parts covering specific regulatory areas. Large parts may be subdivided into subparts. All parts are organized in sections.

The CFR contains only the text of final rules and regulations themselves and does not include any of the very important summary, explanatory and documentary information published in the Federal Register.  A Source Note at the beginning of each CFR part provides the Federal Register citation and date where the part was published. If a particular section was added or amended later, a separate source note will follow that section.  

The CFR is updated by amendments and new rules and regulations in the Federal Register.

Get the CFR

Note:  The first edition of the CFR was published in 1939 containing regulations in force on June 1, 1938.

Find the CFR Section

  • Citation
  • Agency website
  • Notes from the Fed. Reg.
  • Citation from Annotated Statute
  • Citation from Treatise
  • Full-text keyword searching
  • CFR Indexes


Cite to the CFR

Citations to the CFR are most typically provided at either the part or section level.    

Sample Citation: 17 C.F.R. § 275.250 (2011).  

Finding Regulations

Research by Citation

Regulations are most easily located by citation - whether looking in the CFR or Federal Register.  For more information about Federal Register and CFR citations, see above.

Research without a Citation

If you do not have a citation, ask yourself the following:

  • Jurisdiction (federal or state)
  • Keywords (search terms that you will use to describe the legal question)
  • Time period (current regulation or at some time in the past)


From the Statutes

Agencies get their authority from Congress in the form of enabling statutes.  If known, you can use the statute to find related regulations.  One way is to look at the annotated statute for reference to regulations.  If you are looking at a statute in a commercial database like Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg Law, then you can use a citator (like Shepard's or Key Cite) to locate current materials that cite your statute, such as regulations and secondary sources.


Secondary Sources

Use secondary sources (treatises, practice guides, law review articles, etc.) to learn more about the law governed by a particular regulation - and to learn more about the regulation itself.

Index and Keyword Searching

Brainstorm about words that may be used to describe the relevant regulation.  When keyword searching, try to anticipate the language used by the agency in writing the regulation.

Updating Regulations

Publication Dates

The full CFR is printed once a year, with updates occurring one-quarter of the set at a time.

  • Titles 1-16:  January 1
  • Titles 17-27: April 1
  • Titles 28-41: July 1
  • Titles 42-50: October 1

Updating Regulations

The CFR is published once a year; thus, any language in the latest published CFR must be checked for currency.  Fortunately, most online sources are updated within 48 hours.


Lexis, Westlaw (commercial) & the e-CFR

Often the fastest and easiest way to update regulations is to use a commercial provider like Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg Law.  In addition, the e-CFR is updated regularly with information from the Federal Register.

Loose-leaf Services

Most loose-leaf services are updated daily or weekly and will usually indicate whether there are any proposed changes or final changes that have not yet taken effect. Several common databases include loose-leaf service materials, such as: offers a useful tool for checking updates, or proposed changes, to current CFR sections.  Under the Search Tab, select "Advanced Document Search."  Scroll down until you see the field "Affecting CFR Part," and enter the relevant section.

Federal Register advanced search page which offers option to search "affecting CFR part"

CFR List of Sections Affected (LSA)

To update using the LSA:

  1. Find the text of the regulation in the CFR; note the revision date on the cover of the volume.
  2. Check the most recent LSA.  Compare the date on your CFR volume to the inclusive dates listed on the title page of the LSA. If there is a time gap between the date on your CFR volume and the coverage of the latest LSA, check the annual cumulation(s) of the LSA for your title.
  3. Check the list of "CFR Parts Affected during [month]" in the Federal Register issue for the last day of each full month not covered by step 2.
  4. Check the cumulative list of "CFR Parts Affected" in the last issue of the Federal Register for the current month.
  5. Using the citations found in steps 2-4, if any, check the Federal Register issues cited to see the text of the changes.

Validating Regulations

To establish the current validity of an existing regulation, find and read case law (in your jurisdiction) that cites your regulation.  Look out for court constitutionality rulings and other holdings affecting the rule's "good law" status.

If you are looking at a regulation in a commercial database like Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg Law, then you can use a citator (like Shepard's or Key Cite) to locate current materials that cite the regulation, whether cases or secondary sources.

Agency Decisions

Agency Decisions

Administrative agencies act in a judicial-like capacity when issuing decisions that interpret and enforce regulations.  These decisions are rarely gathered in one place, and some agencies do not publish decisions in any format.  Here are some strategies for finding decisions:


Agency Website

Often, agencies will put administrative decisions on their website.

Loose-leaf Services

Most loose-leaf services publish administrative decisions in their subject areas. For older administrative decisions, loose-leafs are often the only source. The Bluebook lists the major loose-leaf services in T15. Several common databases include loose-leaf service materials, such as:

Lexis & Westlaw

Agency Reporter

Some agencies publish official reports of their decisions. The Bluebook lists the official administrative publications in T1.2.  Once you have the name of the reporter, you can search in the Harvard catalog, Hollis.

Freedom of Information Act

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you may request documents from administrative agencies.

Regulatory History

Regulatory History

The Federal Register contains most of the important summary, explanatory and documentary information on a rule.  Thus looking at final rules in the Federal Register may offer more clues to the intent of a regulator than looking in the Code of Federal Regulations.

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