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Legal Research Process

What is the Federal Register (Fed. Reg.)?

Regulations are first published chronologically in the Federal Register (Fed. Reg.), which is issued daily (except on weekends and official federal holidays). The final rules are then arranged by agency and subject in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). 



The Fed. Reg. contains a large amount of material that does not appear in the CFR. It is the only source for notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), agency policy statements, discussion of comments received, descriptive statements on agency organization, and notices. The Fed. Reg. also provides preambles to final rules explaining regulatory thinking that led to their formulation.

When to Use the Fed. Reg.?

The Fed. Reg. is a current awareness tool and, at the same time, a source of regulatory history.

You can look at the Fed. Reg. on a daily basis to stay abreast of new and proposed regulations in whatever area interests you.

You may also turn to the Fed. Reg. after tracking down relevant citations in the CFR and want to research the history behind their formulation. The Fed. Reg. serves as a historical source for it is here that you can find the background for why an agency first proposed a regulation and its reasoning behind the final rule.

There is one place to get a sneak peek at what will appear in the Fed. Reg.:

You can sign up for email or RSS notifications to alert you to documents on file. Documents posted are only tentative, however, as agencies may still end up withdrawing them from publication.

How to Find the Fed. Reg.

The Fed. Reg. is available in both print and online through a number of sources. At the Tarlton Law Library, the print version is located in the main reading room on the second floor. Here are the main online versions available:

GovInfo:

  • From 1970 to present.
  • Updated daily.

FederalRegister.gov:

  • From 1994 to present.
  • Updated daily. 

GovInfo:

  • From volume 25 (1960).
  • Updated daily.

Law Library of Congress:

  • From vol. 1 (1936) to vol. 58 (1993).

HeinOnline:

  • From 1936 to present.
  • Updated daily.

Lexis Advance (login required): 

  • From 1936 to present. 
  • Updated within one day.

Westlaw (login required):

  • Full text coverage beginning January, 1981; documents with citation, name of document, agency, and summary information, and pdf images representing pages of the Federal Register corresponding to each document beginning March, 1936 through December, 1980. [Note: 40 FR 13280 - 13995 not available at this time.]
  • Displays 10 most recent documents added.

Agencies' websites are another source for finding regulations. You can use a website's search function or try Google's Advanced Search feature of limiting the search to a particular agency's site. 

How to Use the Fed. Reg.

Free resources are good to use to first familiarize yourself with possible relevant regulations before double checking your research on Lexis and Westlaw. They are also useful when you simply need to pull up a specific citation, although the historical coverage does not go back as far as Lexis, Westlaw, or HeinOnline.

An individual issue of the Fed. Reg. is laid out in the following order:

  1. table of contents, organized alphabetically by agency,
  2. presidential documents (such as proclamations and executive orders),
  3. new rules and regulations,
  4. proposed rules, and
  5. notices.

A note about the index produced by the Federal Register:

  • Print: As of March 2013, the print version is in a two-column format listing publication dates adjacent to page numbers. Entries are still by agency rather than by subject. (Prior to March 2013, a monthly index to the Fed. Reg. was arranged like the Fed. Reg.'s daily table of contents, with entries by agency rather than by subject but dates located in a separate table.)
  • Online: The online version of the index provides a snapshot of regulatory activity for each Federal agency; users can see a definitive list of documents published by each agency, plus abstracts and hover tools showing which items are deemed to be significant under E.O. 12866, which items are open for comment, and how many comments have been received on items.

On Lexis Advance, for a reminder of how to do terms and connectors searching, click "More" in the upper right of the screen, select "Help" from the drop down menu, and then click "Using Search Connectors." On Westlaw, click advanced search for a reminder of its search operators. There is also a PDF available laying out how Westlaw designates the different fields of a regulation if you wish to search individual components, or some combination of them. (Unfortunately, one has to run a search to be reminded of the abbreviations for each field.)

Strengths & Weaknesses of the Different Versions of the Fed. Reg.

The online versions of the Fed. Reg. provided by FederalRegister.gov, FDSys and government agencies' websites have the advantage of being free. FederalRegister.gov is the most user friendly version for research and offers sophisticated research features like adding documents to your own virtual clipboard. In contrast, FDSys is helpful when you want to locate an official, authenticated copy of a citation. FDSys and FederalRegister.gov do not offer terms and connectors searching that you would find using Lexis and Westlaw, but FederalRegister.gov has a good search engine for natural language searching.

If using a government agency's website, you may be better off using Google's Advanced Search feature to search it than the agency's own search engine. HeinOnline's searching is also less sophisticated, and search results retrieve an entire issue, not just a specific document. Like FDSys, HeinOnline is best used when you want to retrieve a specific citation in pdf that you already know.

FederalRegister.gov's "My FR"

Learn about the FederalRegister.gov's “My FR” Clipboard & Folder feature with a step-by-step video showing you how to clip articles and create folders. The video also demonstrates the various ways to navigate My FR, the advantages of creating a log-in, and how you can rearrange material and remove items as your research progresses.