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Executive Orders

This guide is designed to help researchers understand and locate executive orders, presidential documents, and related executive branch material.

Laws Governing the Publication of Presidential Documents

The Federal Register Act of 1935 created the Federal Register and established publication requirements for executive orders, presidential proclamations, and other presidential documents. The first Federal Register was published in March of 1936. 44 U.S.C. § 1505 requires that the Federal Register publish proclamations and executive orders of general applicability and legal effect, except those effective only against agencies or their officers, agents, or employees. The law also states that other documents or classes of documents that the President determines have general applicability and legal effect be published in the Federal Register

Executive Order 11,030, issued by President Kennedy, established additional preparation, presentation, and publication requirements for executive orders and proclamations. The order has been amended by subsequent Presidents and is printed as amended at the end of 44 U.S.C. § 1505. Additionally, the regulations authorized by Executive Order 11,030 and subsequent amendments have been codified at 1 C.F.R. pt. 19, which governs the form and approval process of executive orders and proclamations. 

Locating Executive Orders and Proclamations

Since 1936 with the first publication of the Federal Register under the Federal Register Act, executive orders and presidential proclamations of general applicability and legal effect have been published in the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations. Other government publications, such as the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, include executive orders and proclamations. 

Locating executive orders and proclamations issued prior to the Federal Register Act can be challenging. As the Library of Congress explains in its guide to executive orders, while the Department of State began numbering executive orders in 1907, many orders were not delivered to the Department of State, but rather were kept by the agency to which the order related, and some of these orders were likely lost. With the passage of the Federal Register Act, numbering executive orders became the responsibility of the Division (now Office) of the Federal Register. The supplement to Part II of the CIS Index to Presidential Executive Orders and Proclamations provides a helpful history of the organization, publication, and availability of both numbered and unnumbered executive orders and proclamations. As the supplement explains, although proclamations were better organized and more accessible than executive orders prior to the Federal Register Act, their historical organization and publication were also somewhat inconsistent.

In addition to official government publications, unofficial publications and compilations include executive orders and proclamations. These sources are especially helpful in locating older orders and proclamations, as well as for finding recent documents not published by the federal government. Various indexes and tables also provide valuable information about executive orders and proclamations and where to locate them. In this section of the guide, you will find an extensive list of these resources. Of particular note is ProQuest’s Presidential Materials online collection, which is the most comprehensive source for presidential documents. The American Presidency Project’s American Presidency Documents database also provides expansive access to presidential documents from 1826 to present. 

Locating Presidential Pardons

It can be difficult to locate presidential documents related to executive clemency, including a specific Executive Grant of Clemency document or clemency application. For more recent presidential administrations, the Office of the Pardon Attorney maintains web pages with copies of Clemency documents related to all pardons and commutations that have been granted since President Nixon, and all those denied since President H.W. Bush. Currently pending applications for clemency can also be searched through the Office of the Pardon Attorney's website. Additionally, ProQuest's Presidential Materials collection includes presidential pardons from President Washington to the current administration. 

For additional information about executive clemency generally, see:  

Locating Executive Memoranda, General Presidential Directives, and Signing Statements

The President issues other documents besides executive orders and presidential proclamations, including memoranda, decisions, and notices. Additionally, signing statements, although they do not have formal legal effect, can be important to understanding legislative history. The Supplement to Part II of the CIS Index to Presidential Executive Orders and Proclamations and the Congressional Research Service’s introduction to directives include helpful descriptions of other types of presidential directives. 

The Federal Register includes presidential documents besides executive orders and proclamations. Documents or classes of documents that the President determines have general applicability and legal effect must be published in the Federal Register. Presidential documents printed in the Federal Register are reprinted annually in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations, after executive orders and proclamations. Other government publications also include presidential documents beyond executive orders and proclamations. 

Further, unofficial publications and compilations can be helpful in locating presidential documents not included in these governmental publications, such as national security directives. In this guide, you will find an extensive list of these resources. 

Of note is ProQuest’s Presidential Materials online collection, which is the most comprehensive source for presidential documents. The American Presidency Project’s American Presidency Documents database also provides expansive access to presidential documents from 1826 to present. 

Other Research Guides

Library of Congress Guides