Skip to main content

Administrative Law Research Guide: Federal Regulations

This guide is intended for students who are learning about administrative law and its sources, and to help scholars and practitioners locate materials in the library and online. Content additions will be gradual but steady. Please check back often!

Rulemaking is the process of creating regulations, which are statements by agencies that have the force of law. The authority to regulate is granted by Congress, and many laws passed by Congress give federal agencies flexibility to decide how best to implement the laws. Challenges to regulatory actions can occur throughout and beyond a rulemaking procedure.  

The Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.)

Federal regulations are found in the Code of Federal Regulations, commonly called the CFR.  Like the federal statutes, the CFR is divided by subject into numbered titles.  Although some of the 50 CFR titles are topically similar to identically numbered titles of the U.S. Code, most titles do not correspond numerically. The official Code of Federal Regulations is published by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO), in soft cover volumes, and online at FDsys.gov and GovInfo.gov.  HeinOnline offers a searchable version of the official CFR in PDF format. Commercial database services publish annotated, unofficial versions of the CFR. Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law are restricted to password subscriptions. Check the Databases & Websites tab at the top of the guide for a list of links to subscription and free databases for the CFR.  

E-cfr.gov is the government website for the unofficial version of the Code of Federal Regulations that is updated nearly every day. E-cfr.gov is an acceptable way to research, but results should be verified in an official version. Updating the official version of the CFR to the current date is accomplished with the Federal Register.

CFR Indexes and Finding Aids

One way to begin researching federal regulations is with an index to the CFR.  Term-searching in the full CFR database can bring good results, but if you do not know the particular terminology used in a regulation, an index can help you develop the language you will need to avoid irrelevant results and a frustrating search experience.  

The official print version of the CFR has a single volume print index, produced annually by the Government Publishing Office (GPO), entitled CFR Index and Finding Aids (KF 70 .A1, located at the end of the print CFR volumes in Reference). It contains an alphabetical word index; a table of authorities that cross-references U.S. Code sections, the Statutes at Large, Public Laws, and Executive Orders to corresponding CFR sections. It also has a comprehensive list of all the CFR Titles, Chapters, Subchapters, and Parts, and an alphabetical list of all agencies appearing in CFR, with cross-references to relevant CFR titles or chapters. 

The United States Code Service Index and Finding Aids to the Code of Federal Regulations is a single-volume, soft cover book published by Lexis as part of the U.S.C.S. Lawyers Edition multi-volume set. You will find this CFR finding aid at the end of the CFR materials and other CFR indexes on the first floor of the Eckstein Library.  It is similar to the GPO version, but has the added feature of a second table of authorities that allows you to cross-reference to the U.S.. Code by looking up a regulation. In other words, this book permits cross-referencing from statute to regulation (Table I), and regulation to statute (Table II).  

West prints a four-volume index called West's Code of Federal Regulations General Index, which is updated less frequently than the GPO or U.S.C.S. sources and lacks other finding aids, though it has a much larger index. Last updated in 2013.  

Westlaw also offers an online index to its CFR database.  Like its print index, there are no cross-referenced tables of authorities in the online version.  It is the only index to the CFR available online and can be very helpful if you are unsure or do not know specialty terms that often occur in regulations.  Start with a more common word in the index and look for cross-references. 

The Federal Register (FR)

The Federal Register (FR) is the daily online and printed publication that supplies an official record of federal rulemaking and other federal regulatory events. Statutory requirements determine what must be published in the Federal Register.  When a new regulation is finalized, the official, promulgated version is first published in the Federal Register.  You will find history notes to the FR at the end of CFR sections, directing you to the volume and page of the Federal Register that announces the amendment, repeal, or creation of a regulation.  The statutory authority that enables a regulation is always cited in the FR, as well as in the CFR.

The official Federal Register is published by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO), in softcover volumes, and online at FDsys.gov and GovInfo.gov.  HeinOnline offers a searchable, official version in PDF.  Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg have unofficial Federal Register databases, updated within a day or two of the government online version.  Federalregister.gov is a newsy, searchable, user-friendly government site that can route you to a rule update in the Federal Register.

   The Federal Register is an important tool for updating a regulation and tracing the history of a finalized (or a failed) regulation.

Rules are published in the Federal Register when they are first proposed, often with a supporting record that may include evidentiary materials offered in support of the proposed regulation. Citations to scientific reports or studies, expert testimony, financial documentation, or other data are commonly found in an agency's notice of proposed rulemaking, or when the final rule is promulgated and published in the Federal Register.  This so-called "preamble" information for the rule that is published in the Federal Register does not get included in the CFR.  The supplementary documentation can be very useful for researchers.

Notices of hearing and comment periods are part of the rulemaking process and are published in the Federal Register. Agency responses to public comments are also reported, especially at the final promulgation stage, when the agency may describe its decision to alter a proposed rule as a result of the information gained during the comment period. Sometimes, emergency rules are created when a rapid agency response is needed. Emergency rules are published in the Federal Register, along with notice of their duration and the opportunity to comment to the appropriate agency. Emergency rules are not part of the CFR, unless they become final rules.

Presidential documents and executive orders are published in the Federal Register and ultimately reside in CFR Title 3.    

How to Update a Federal Regulation

1) Use the official CFR, either in print, or in PDF from the FDsys.gov website. Locate your regulation. Check the cover of the CFR volume or look at the top of every other page to find the “revised as of” date. You must update your regulation from that date forward. Depending upon the CFR title you are updating, you might only need to update for a month, or possibly up to a full year.
  
2) Next, check the LSA: List of CFR Sections Affected. The LSA is a monthly print pamphlet that is also available in PDF on the FDsys CFR main page (look in the left margin).  In the LSA, CFR titles and sections are listed in a table, in chronological order, with corresponding Federal Register citations for any amendments.
The LSA cumulates every month. You need only examine the most recent month to find all changes to your regulation since the last version in the official CFR volume, through the month of the most recent LSA. Federal Register pages will be cited in the LSA if there have been changes. If so, go to the cited volume and page in the Federal Register and read the text of the updated regulation there.  

3) At that point, you still have a gap from the last day of the most current completed LSA month, to the present day. Go to the Federal Register for last day of the month(s) beyond the LSA range. Check for your CFR citation in the CFR Parts Affected, located in Reader’s Aids, in the back pages of the FR, to fill the coverage gap after the most recent LSA. Usually, that means just the current month must be checked.  

For example: If you are updating a regulation on November 15th, and have checked the LSA for October, you need to look at the Reader's Aids in the November 15th Federal Register.  It will list citations for any changes to regulations made from Nov. 1-15. If changes to your regulation in November are cited, go to the daily Federal Registers for those citations to find the amended text.  E.g., if 82 FR 12345 is cited in Reader's Aids, that is page 12345 of volume 82 of the Federal Register.  

FDsys.gov has the Federal Register in PDF up through the current business day.  Each daily Federal Register has a Reader's Aids section in the back that updates CFR changes cumulatively for the current month. 

Why not just use commercial legal databases to get the most current version of a federal regulation?

ONLY THE FEDERAL SOURCE IS OFFICIAL AND CURRENT TO THE PRESENT DAY. 

Westlaw, LexisNexis, Bloomberg Law, Fastcase, everything commercial, gets the updated regulations from official, federal sources. Usually, there is at least a two-day delay in the uploading.  Even the e-cfr, which is produced by the Government Publishing Office (GPO), is a day or more behind the Federal Register updates. 

If you are using Westlaw & Lexis for regulatory research, check the currency date of the regulation you are studying.
Always KeyCite or Shepardize regulations, too. Sometimes, the currency date in the commercial CFR database will be a few days old, but the citator will turn up a Federal Register citation in the commercial database that is a day or two fresher.  
Sometimes, there are errors, too, which can be true of anything you find on a commercial database.  
 
The best way to ensure you have the most current, accurate version of a regulation is to follow the updating steps in the box above.  

CFR Titles

This list of the 50 TItles of the CFR links to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute (LII). The open-access site is a not-for-profit venture dedicated to delivering the law to the public at no cost.  https://www.law.cornell.edu/

Citing Federal Regulations

The Bluebook, Rule 14, explains citation form for routinely encountered federal administrative and executive materials. Table T1.2 in the Bluebook should be consulted for additional agency and executive materials whose citation form varies from Rule 14. 

Example: The federal regulation that describes changes in voting procedures, as defined by the Voting Rights Act, is found in CFR Title 28, Judicial Administration, Part 51—Procedures for the Administration of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as Amended.  

The regulation is cited like this:  

28 C.F.R. § 51.13 (2016).

  • 28 is the number of the title in the CFR that has the regulation. 
  • C.F.R. is the citation abbreviation for the Code of Federal Regulations.
  • § is the symbol for the section (or part) of the regulation.
  • 51.13 is section number, comprised of the numeric representation for the part (51) and subsection (13) of the regulation.
  • (2016) is the date of the most recently-updated code edition for this section.  
  • If a more recent version were available in the Federal Register, the amendment would be added as a Federal Register citation with a notation to the CFR citation.  See, The Bluebook, Rule 14.1.