UPDATE: A Guide to the U. S. Federal Legal System

Web-based Public Accessible Sources

 

By Gretchen Feltes

Gretchen Feltes i s Faculty Services/Reference Librarian at New York University School of Law Library.

 

Published July/August 2014
(Previously updated in January 2006, November 2007, October 2010, September 2012, and September 2013)

See the archive version!

 

Table of Contents

I.  Introduction

II. Introduction to the United States Federal System

A.  The Structure of the Federal Government

B.  The Constitution

III. Legislation

A.  Background

B.  Proposed Legislation

C.  Enacted Legislation

1. Presidential Action

2. Publication of Enacted Laws

D. Codified Law                 

E.  Legislative Intent

1. Committee Reports

2. Congressional Hearings

3. Congressional Record

F.  Historical Documents

IV. The Judiciary

A. The Court System

B. Federal Trial and Appellate Courts

C. Supreme Court

D. Courts of Special Jurisdiction

V.  Executive Branch and Administrative Law

A. Background

B. Administrative Law Sources

1. Federal Register

2. Code of Federal Regulations

3. Administrative Rulings and Decisions

C. Presidential documents

1. Executive orders and proclamations

2. Presidential Documents

VI. Meta Links

VII. Search Engines

VIII. Guides to United States Legal Research in other languages

 

I.  Introduction

 

          This guide was originally prepared to be added with similar guides for legal research of many foreign jurisdictions. The intended audience was global in scope and one without access to the printed sources and fee-based databases in American federal law. Since its first publication, I have come to realize that the audience includes many internet users who require reliable legal sources through publicly accessible web-based databases. Many of the materials here are recent and not comprehensive in scope and date coverage. The guide is not intended to supplant traditional sources of legal research.  It is my hope that it serves as an introduction to the field and leads the user to a more comprehensive exploration of American federal law.

 

II. Introduction to the United States Legal System

 

A. The Structure of the Federal Government

 

The legal system in the United States is an often-uneasy balance of national government and the governments of the fifty states. There are parallel systems of executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and shared powers among the states and the federal governments. The relationship between the state and federal systems can be quite complex.  Simply stated, the powers of the federal government are specifically defined in the Constitution.  Those powers not expressly prescribed therein are left to the jurisdiction of the fifty sovereign states.  Conflicts between state and federal laws are governed by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which declares that all laws enacted in the furtherance of the Constitution are the “supreme law of the land,” and that federal laws have legal superiority over a state constitution or law.

 

B.  The Constitution

 

          The Constitution is the founding document for the United States federal government. It is the basic and “supreme law of the land.” It defines the structure of the federal government, provides the legal foundation on which all its actions must rest, and guarantees the rights due to its citizens. No laws may contradict any of the Constitution=s principles.  The federal courts have jurisdiction to interpret the Constitution and evaluate the constitutionality of federal and state laws.

The Constitution creates a federal government that is comprised of three separate and equal branches: legislative, executive and judicial.  The legislative branch, Congress, has the authority to make laws.  The executive branch, the President and cabinet, has administrative and regulatory power.  The judiciary interprets the laws. The government is designed to provide a system of “checks and balances,” in which each branch has oversight powers over the others.   For example, the President may veto legislation passed by Congress.   For most legal research, the judicial review of legislation is most substantial.  Although Congress has the authority to modify prospectively a judgment of the Supreme Court, in practice, the Court is considered to have the “last word” in United States law.  

 

US Constitution (full text)

United States Constitution       National Archives collection : Charters of Freedom

Congressional Research Service Annotated Constitution   Compiled by Congressional Research Service

Senate Virtual Reference Desk: Constitution

Founder’s Constitution Compiled by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner and hosted by the University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund, annotated with primary source material to illustrate each clause

 

Translations of the United States Constitution may be found at the following:

 

ConstitutionFacts.com

French, Spanish, Russian

Georgetown’s Political Database of the Americas

Spanish

National Constitution Center

Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese

US Dept. of State US Freedom Documents

Bill of Rights available in 50 languages

 

III. Legislation

 

A.  Background [ [1] ]

 

Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution creates a bicameral legislature known as Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The chief function of Congress is to enact laws.  The House and the Senate have equal legislative functions and powers.  There is no “upper” or “lower” house in Congress.  Legislation must be passed by the majority of each chamber of Congress before it is sent to the President to be signed into law.  Among the powers vested in Congress is the power to lay and collect taxes, duties and tariffs and to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states. 

The Senate has 100 members (two from each state), elected to six year terms.  The House of Representatives has 435 members, who serve two-year terms.  Each chamber has standing committees that prepare and draft legislation.

 

Senate

Congressional Biographical Directory

House of Representatives

House of Representatives People Search

Congressional Biographical Directory , 1774-

 

Congressional Directory, 1997 -

 

 

 

Background Information Sources

How Our Laws Are Made

Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives

Senate Virtual Reference Desk

Secretary of the Senate

The House Explained

 

House of Representatives : History, Art Archives

Office of the Historian

 

B.  Proposed Legislation

 

          Proposed legislation may be initiated in either chamber of Congress in one of four formats: bills, joint resolution, concurrent resolution or simple resolution.  The bill format is most common.  There are two kinds of bills: public and private.  Public bills affect the public generally; private bills are used to address the matters of individuals. When a bill is introduced, it is numbered by the clerk of the house introducing the legislation.  This is the first reading of the bill.  It is next referred to one of the standing committees.

The committee may table the bill or continue the drafting process. Hearings may be held on the subject of the bill.  The committee may debate and amend the bill before voting on it.  If there is a favorable vote, the bill is sent to the floor of the house where the clerk reads it line by line to the house. Members may debate and offer amendments.  After a third reading the bill is put to a vote. When a bill is voted upon and passed by one chamber, it is referred to the other house. If the approved bill is reported in the second houses, where it may be accepted as is or amended.  If amended and passed in the second chamber, the bill is returned to the originating house for final vote.

Increasingly in the last five years, the political polarization of the Senate has led to the widespread use of the rules of filibuster and cloture.   The House of Representatives has rules that limit debate of Congressional business.   In the Senate, debate is not limited.  It can lead to process known as filibuster, where a Senator takes the floor with the intent to block or delay a vote, yielding only to same party Senators.   Rule XXII, known as the cloture rule, allows the limiting of consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by a three-fifths vote (60) of the full Senate.  An

Historical chart of cloture votes  may be found on the Senate reference website.  

 

Congressional Bill Sources

Thomas               Coverage begins with 101 st Congress, 1989-    

Congress.gov     Website launched in late 2013.  Consult chart for coverage.

Congressional Bills    Coverage begins with 103 rd Congress, 1993-     GPO: FDSys authenticated copy

Thomas Bill Summaries   Coverage begins with 93 rd Congress, 1973-

Thomas Bill Text        Coverage begins with 101 st Congress, 1989-

Senate Active Legislation   Coverage begins with 106 th Congress, 1999-

 

C.  Enacted Legislation

 

1.  Presidential Action

 

          Each bill is passed by Congress is enrolled for Presidential action.  A bill becomes law by Presidential signature.  The Constitution requires the President to approve the bill by signature or to veto it by returning the bill to the house from which it originated with his objections for reconsideration.  The objections are read and debated in Congress before a roll call vote is taken. A veto overridden with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and the bill becomes law.  Finally, a bill may become law by “pocket veto,” whereby the President does not return the bill to Congress with objections within10 days. 

 

Presidential Veto History Sources

American Presidency Project, Vetoes 1789-

Presidential Vetoes, 1789-      Compiled and maintained by the House of Representatives, Office of Historian

CRS Report: Veto Override Procedure

CRS Report : Regular V e t o es and Pocket Vetoes

 

2.  Publication of Enacted Laws

 

When a law is signed by the President, it is assigned a public law number. The first printing of the public law is known as a “slip law.”  The Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration prepares and publishes the enacted legislation. The printed law has a heading that includes the public law number, date of approval, bill number and title. Statutes at Large enumerations appear in the top right corner of the page.  Annotations citing to laws and where the text will be codified in the United States Code appear in the margins.

At the end of each Congressional session, the slip laws are compiled in the United States Statutes at Large.  It is the official chronological publication of the laws and resolutions enacted by Congress.  In addition, the text of amendments to the Constitution and presidential proclamations are found in Statutes at Large . Because the text of a public law remains unchanged from the slip law to Statutes at Large , there is not a separate database on GPO: FDSYS.

 

US Legislation (full text)

Public and Private Laws, 1995-       GPO:FDSys authenticated

Public Laws (selected full text)       Thomas, Congress.gov

Statutes at Large, 1789-1876             Library of Congress Century of Lawmaking

 

D.  Codified Law

 

The Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives prepares the official subject compilation of all general and permanent laws, known as the United States Code . There are fifty-0ne subject “titles”  and five appendices found in the United States Code . New editions are printed and published every six years, with cumulative supplements printed at the end of each regular session of Congress.   The current edition of the United States Code is the 2012 edition.  Online versions of the United States Code are found on the GPO: FDSYS and the Law Revision Counsel Websites.

 

US Legislation Codified

 

 

United States Code

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

103 rd Congress, 1994-

United States Code

GPO:FDSys

1994-

United States Code

Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute

Current code (HTML)

United States Code

Justia

1994-  (HTML)

 

Searching the US Code

 

 

LRC advanced search

Search title, section, statutory text, amendments, references

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

1994-

LRC Popular Name Table

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

1789-  (HTML & PDF)

LRC Statutes at Large Table

Chronological list of laws passed and classified in the US Code

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

1789-  (HTML & PDF)

LRC- US Code Classification Tables Indicates where recently passed law will appear in the Code

US House of Representatives

Law Revision Counsel

112 th Congress -

US Code Popular Name Table

Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute

1789-

US Code Table of Contents

Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute

Current code

US Code Parallel Table of Authorities and Rules

GPO:FDSYS

-2011

 

E.  Sources for Legislative Intent

 

                  Legal researchers may need to look beyond the enacted language of a statute to find the intent of the lawmakers in drafting the law.  Legislative history research may be used as a means of interpreting a statute.  The sources for legislative intent follow the history of the passage of the law, from introduction to committee documentation to floor debate and Presidential remarks.

 

1.  Committee Reports and Documents

 

The work of preparing and drafting legislation is done largely by the standing committees of both the House and Senate. There are nineteen House-standing committees and sixteen in the Senate. Nomenclature differs in the standing committees in the House and Senate. Each bill is referred to the appropriate committee. If a committee votes to report a bill to the larger house, a report is written to analyze and describe the purpose and scope of the proposed law.  There is a section-by-section analysis of the bill.  It accompanies a bill when it is returned to the introducing chamber for debate and a vote. Reports often include statements of the committee’s rationale for its recommendation for passage of the bill.  A committee report is the most important document of legislative intent. A committee report is numbered firstly by Congress, and then sequentially (i.e. 106-1). 

 

If there is a significant difference in the bills passed by the House and Senate, an agreement is negotiated in a conference committee, composed of members from each chamber.  A conference report is submitted to each chamber for approval.  Conference reports appear in the Congressional Record three calendar days before floor consideration.

 

Congressional Committee Reports

 

Thomas , 1995- Full text Senate & House reports

Search by keyword, bill number, report number and committee

Congress.gov, 1995-

HTML, with  links to GPO FDSys

Congressional Reports 1995- Full text, searchable files

GPO:FDSYS, reports in PDF

Conference Reports 2005-

GPO:FDSYS, reports in PDF

Senate Committees

Selective coverage on Committee’s webpages

House of Representatives Committees

Selective coverage on Committees'

 

2.  Congressional Hearings

 

Public hearings may be held by the standing and special committees of either the House of Representatives or the Senate .  Experts and interested persons and groups may be invited by committees to speak to the need of legislation or air a controversial situation. Committees generally require witnesses to file a written statement of their proposed testimony.  Transcripts of public hearings are frequently printed and distributed. 

 

Committee hearings schedules are announced in the Congressional Record and the House and Senate webpages.  Selected statements and transcripts can be found on the individual Committee webpages.

 

Congressional Hearings

 

Senate Hearings

Daily digest of Committee meetings and hearings

House of Representatives

Coverage, 110 th Congress, 2008-

Congressional Hearings

GPO: FDSys (PDF and ASCII), Coverage, 1985-

 

  3.  Congressional Record

 

The Congressional Record is published each day the Congress is in session. It is the official record of the debates, proceedings and activities of Congress.  It presents a complete rendition of all bill and amendment texts and of all motions or procedural matters.   There are four parts to each issue. separately paged House and Senate reporting, Extensions of remarks not made on the floor, and the Daily Digest of Congressional activities.

 

Congressional Record

 

 

Congressional Record

Congressional Record

Thomas

Congress.gov

1989-

1989-

Congressional Record

GPO: FDSys       

1994-

History of Bills

GPO: FDSys

1983-

Congressional Record Index

GPO: FDSys

1983-

Congressional Globe

LC Century of Lawmaking

1833-1873

Congressional Record

LC Century of Lawmaking

1873-1877

 

 

F.  Historical databases

 

Sources for Additional Historical Information

A Century of Lawmaking   US Congressional Documents & Debates, 1774-1875

Searchable documents of the Constitutional Congress, Constitutional Convention, and the 1 st -24 th Congresses including the House & Senate Journals, Statutes at Large, Annals of Congress, Congressional Globe ,  the Serial Set  and Bills and Resolutions

US House of Representatives History, Art & Archives   Collaborative project of historical data, archives and online exhibits of the art collections of the House.   The collection includes oral histories, biographical information, tables for each Congress indicating Committee assignments, voting statistics.

Senate Historical Office    The collection includes historical essays on the development of the Senate and its constitutional origins, oral histories, statistics and biographies

Library of Congress Primary Documents in American History Features landmark legislation, cases, treaties, proclamations and speeches

Yale Law School’s Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History Full text searchable documents including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Madison’s Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787

 

IV. The Judiciary

 

A.  The Court System

 

Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judiciary branch of government. The Supreme Court was organized in 1790 with judicial power to review cases arising under the Constitution, the Laws of the United States and treaties.  Statutory authority for the Court can be found in 28 U. S. Code Sect.1251 et seq.  The Constitution gives Congress the authority to create additional federal courts.  The hierarchical system, which evolved, is Courts of Appeal and lower level trial courts, Federal District Courts.

The federal courts have the judicial responsibility to rule on the constitutionality of federal laws, to interpret and to apply the laws to resolve disputes.  The federal courts have “limited” jurisdiction in that they can only decide certain types of cases as determined by Congress or defined in the Constitution.  That means the federal courts decide cases interpreting the Constitution, all federal laws, federal regulations and rules, and controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments.

 

Guides to the US Federal Courts System

Administrative Office of the US Courts maintains an educational outreach program that publishes materials to be used in learning about the federal courts.   Publishes Understanding the Courts and Federal Court System in the United States available in French , Italian , Spanish

Federal Judicial Center is the research and education center for the federal judicial system.  Includes information about federal judicial procedures, court operations and the history of the courts.  Biographical database of all judges.   Publishes   Inside the Federal Courts

Supreme Court Historical Society has a web guide on the workings of the US Supreme Court.

 

B.  Federal Trial and Appellate Courts

 

The federal district courts are the trial courts, both civil and criminal, in the federal system.  There are 94 federal district courts.  Each district includes a bankruptcy court.  In addition, there are two special trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction over international trade/customs, the Court of International Trade, and the Court of Federal Claims, with jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts and unlawful “takings” of private property by the federal government.

A lower court’s ruling on an issue of law may be appealed to the intermediate appellate court. In the federal court systems, these intermediate courts are the United States Courts of Appeal.  The 94 federal district courts are organized into 12 regional appellate courts and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  These courts hear appeals from the district courts and federal administrative agencies.  The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, located in Washington, has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from specialized cases, like patent cases, as well as appeals for the Court of International Trade and Court of Federal Claims. 

 

Federal Court Decisions Sources

United States Courts Opinions      GPO: FDSys Opinions from selected US appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts.  Coverage varies.

 FindLaw.com   Federal Courts of Appeals cases and searchable database.  Search by full text, court, and docket number.  Coverage varies by Court.

US Courts of Appeals Cases (Justia.com)       Retrieve cases by Federal Reporter citation, date and circuit. Search full text.  Coverage varies, 1949-2007 for appellate cases; district court cases -2011

Google Scholar    Federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy decisions from 1923-  ; US Supreme Court coverage, 1791-

Public Library of Law     Federal Courts of Appeals decisions retrievable by name, citation, docket number.  Coverage varies by Court.

 

Federal Courts Rules

US Courts Federal Rules of Practice and Procedure   Current, proposed and archived rules

Public Library of Law    Drop down menu allows access to Supreme Court rules, Federal Rules of Practice and Procedure, and local Courts of Appeals rules

 

 Biographical Information

Federal Judicial Center   Biographical Database for all federal judges appointed by the President, 1789 -  Repositories of judicial papers noted.   Also available on the US Courts Website.

 

C.  United States Supreme Court

 

The United States Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The Court is comprised of the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress.  Cases heard by the Supreme Court usually involve questions about the Constitution or federal law.  Cases may begin in the federal or state courts.  The court has discretionary power to decline review of cases from lower courts by denying petitions of certiorari or dismissing appeals. 

 

Background Information on the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Historical Society   Overview of the Court, its history and procedures, publishes the Journal of Supreme Court History and a quarterly newsletter

United States Supreme Court “About the Court”   Overview of the Court and its procedures, biographies of past and present members of the Court

Federal Judicial Center History of the Federal Judiciary Includes landmark legislation files, a listing of impeached federal judges, history of the courts and a study of the Amistad case

Supreme Court of the United States – Wikipedia

                 

Biographical Information of the Justices

US Supreme Court Justices    Current justices only

Supreme Court Historical Society’s Biographical page all Supreme Court Justices  

Federal Judicial Center    All federal judges from 1789 – to present

Supreme Court of the United States – Wikipedia  

 

Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

Thomas – Presidential Nominations   100 th Congress, 1987-

Congress.gov - Nominations    97 th Congress, 1981-

Law Library of Congress – Supreme Court Nominations

Senate Supreme Court Nominations historical chart, 1789 -   (present-1789)

Georgetown Law Library Supreme Court Nominations Research Guide

Congressional Research Service report – Supreme Court Nominations, 1789- 2010

Congressional Research Service report – Supreme Court Nominations Not Confirmed, 1789-2007

                 

Supreme Court sessions begin the first Monday of October and officially end the first Monday of October the following year.  Traditionally, however, the Court issues decisions through June.   According to the Supreme Court website, nearly 10,000 petitions are filed with the Court in the course of a Term.  The business of the Court is divided between “sittings” (for oral arguments of cases and reading the Court’s decision) and “recesses” (for writing decisions, including concurring and dissenting opinions).  The Court, on average according to the Supreme Court website, issues 80 to 90 decisions per year.  These decisions published officially in the United States Reports.

 

Parties petitioning the Court for a hearing in a case are required to submit briefs outlining the factual background legal arguments in support of the petition.   Briefs are filed weeks in advance of oral arguments.  Petitioners and Respondents each file briefs and may reply in additional briefs.  In addition, a person or organization, who is not a party in the case, may file a “friend of the court” or amicus curiae brief to argue for or against a hearing of a case or the merits of the case. 

 

US Supreme Court Briefs

 

American Bar Association Supreme Court Merit Briefs file

2003-

Supreme Court Briefs (FindLaw.com)

1999-2007

US Dept. of Justice, Office of the Solicitor General

1982-     Searchable by topic of law

Petitions We’re Watching   (ScotusBlog)

Current term

 

                  When a case has been granted a hearing by the Court, oral arguments are scheduled.  Lawyers for each party are given thirty minutes to present its case.  Justices may interrupt with questions or remarks.

 

Supreme Court Oral Argument Sources

Supreme Court Arguments Transcripts     Available from the Court’s website, October 2000 term -

  Oyez     (Chicago-Kent Law School )    Recordings of the selective oral arguments from October 1955-1967, complete 1968-

                 

                  After oral arguments, the case goes to conference for discussion by the Justices.  Cases are decided by a majority of the Justices of the Court.  The task of writing the opinion is assigned by the Chief Justice, when he has voted with the majority, or by the senior Justice of the majority.  On average according to the Supreme Court website, 80 to 90 decisions are issued per year.  These decisions are published officially in the United States Reports.

 

United States Supreme Court Cases Sources

United States Supreme Court   includes docket information from 2006- , calendars, et cetera)  The Court has bound volumes of United States Reports in PDF format beginning with volume 502, October 1991 term.

Cornell Legal Information Institute   Supreme Court Collection, all opinions, 1990- Searchable by topic, opinion author, party names, date

FindLaw.com US Supreme Court Opinions   All opinions, 1893-  Searchable by citation, party name, and full text   Maintains an Opinions Summaries Archive , September 2000-

Google Scholar All opinions, 1789-  Full text searching

Oyez Chicago-Kent Law School Multimedia database, include audio files of oral arguments, selected decisions back to 1789.  Arranged in reverse chronological order.  Alternative arrangement by issue.

SCOTUSblog 2007 term -   Tracks cases from certiorari stage through the merits stage. Live blogging of opinions

 

 

United States Supreme Court Rules

United States Supreme Court Rules   (PDF) effective July 1, 2013

United States Supreme Court Rules   (HTML)

Public Library of Law        

 

D.  Courts of Special Jurisdiction

 

In addition to the courts described above, there are federal courts with jurisdiction over specialized areas of law including bankruptcy, tax, federal claims, international trade and military appeals.  Each of the 94 federal districts has a bankruptcy court.  The US Tax Court handles appeals from the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue. The US Court of Federal Claims and the US Court of International Trade have nationwide jurisdiction. The Court of International Trade has jurisdiction over civil actions arising out of import transactions and federal statutes affecting international trade.  The Court of Federal Claims hears cases involving money claims with the United States.  The Court of Military Appeals is independent of the Department of Defense and is composed of five civilian judges who act as the final appellate tribunal in military law.

Guides to Courts of Special Jurisdiction

Decisions

United States Bankruptcy Courts               

FindLaw’s Bankruptcy Courts page links to the local courts, coverage varies by court

United States Court of Federal Claims

Decisions

United States Court of International Trade

Decisions, 1999-

United States Court of Military Appeals

Decisions, 1997-

United States Tax Court   

Decisions, 1995-

 

 

V.  Executive Branch and Administrative Law

 

A.  Background

 

The Executive branch of the federal government includes the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet and the federal agencies.  Among the Presidential powers are the power to nominate the federal judiciary, ambassadors and all other officers of the United States.  He has primary authority for foreign affairs.  The President has legislative oversight powers by power of veto. 

 

The President selects the Cabinet and the heads of governmental agencies, subject to approval by Congress.  The Cabinet is the highest advisory group to the President. The fourteen Cabinet departments are State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and Veterans Affairs.  In addition, there are governmental agencies that serve specific needs.  They include the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

 

The United States Government Manual is the directory of the administrative agencies of the federal government, as well as quasi-official agencies, and international organizations in which the US participates.  Outlines statutory authority, jurisdiction, major publications of the agencies and a directory of personnel.

 

Sources for the Executive Branch

United States Government Manual      through GPO: FDSys, 1995 -  (PDF)

US Federal Government Agencies Directory   Louisiana State University/hyperlinked directory

Internet Legal Research Group  

White House Executive Branch guide

 

B.  Administrative Law Sources

 

Congress has the authority to write the laws but gives authority to promulgate rules and regulations to interpret and to administer those laws to the federal agencies. The government agencies issue rules and regulations that have the force of law and preempt state laws and rules.  A general statement describing the rule’s purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule.  Technically, the administrative law is subordinate to legislation. In addition, the President has broad powers to issue executive orders to direct the actions of agencies or government officials or to set policies for the executive branch to follow. 

 

Guides to Federal Administrative Law

A Citizens Guide to Influencing Agency Action prepared by the Administrative Law Review

Guide to the Rulemaking Process    prepared by the Office of the Federal Register

Regulations Map   prepared by the General Services Administration

Law Library of Congress Administrative Law Guide

 

 

1.  Federal Register

 

The publication of federal rules and regulations loosely parallels the publication of laws, in that they are published firstly, chronologically in the Federal Register , and in subject arrangement in the Code of Federal Regulations .   Rules and regulations go through a process of notice and comment before they are final.  The notice describes the proposed rule and allows the public at least 30 days to comment.  After this process, the agency can issue a final rule.  A general statement describing the rule’s purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule.  

 

The Federal Register is published each business day.  Material is arranged under one of five headings.

·        Presidential Documents (proclamations, executive orders, other executive documents)

·        Rules and regulations (with force of law) CFR references, agency, summary of actions, effective dates and text of the regulation and change.  Rules are published 30 days prior to effective dates.  Comments received and subsequent actions are summarized

·        Proposed rules and regulatory agendas, hearings notices

·        Notices of matters not concerned with rulemaking agency decisions and rulings, impact statements, et cetera

·        Notices of Sunshine Act meetings

 

Each issue of the Federal Register contains a table of contents arranged by agency name and any rules, proposed rules, and notices of the agency, followed by a table of changes in regulations ( List of Sections Affected ) arranged by Code of Federal Regulations citation. The last issue of the month contains a cumulative list of sections affected.

 

The federal government maintains an interactive website for public participation in the regulatory process.   Regulations.gov allows a research to find, view and comment on proposed regulations and rules.

 

Federal Register

GPO: F DSys About Federal Register    Research guide for searching and retrieving rules and regulations by full text, citation, government agency

GPO: FDSys Federal Register    1994-   ASCII and PDF formats

GPO: FDSys List of CFR Sections Affected

Regulations.gov     Federal government website for finding, reviewing and submitting comments on regulations open for comment

Federal Register Tutorial   Prepared by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives

 

2.  Code of Federal Regulations

 

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is a codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the federal agencies. Regulations are codified in a subject arrangement of fifty titles similar to the United States Code . The fifty titles represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. Each title is divided into chapters and parts. The chapters usually bear the name of the issuing agency. The entire code is revised on an annual basis. In addition, the federal agencies have adjudicatory power in determining cases and questions arising over regulations.  Federal agency websites publish guides to the Code of Federal Regulation, updates, proposed rules and some decisions of the administrative courts.

 

Code of Federal Regulations

GPO: FDSys About Code of Federal Regulations Research guide for searching and retrieving regulations by full text, citation, government agency

GPO: FDSys Code of Federal Regulations   1996-   ASCII and PDF formats

GPO: FDSys List of CFR Sections Affected

e-CFR    While not official, this is created by the Office of the Federal Register and is updated daily

 

3.  Administrative Rulings and Decisions

 

Most federal agencies have a quasi-judicial power in determining cases and in ruling about questions arising from their regulations.  This adjudicatory power involves settling disputes between or among parties or between parties and the government.  For example, a dispute may arise when an agency has made a binding and case-specific ruling about the site of a federal facility.  The property owner may appeal the decision to an administrative law judge.  There is fact-finding process, known as a hearing, and a ruling based upon the agency regulations.  Hearings are conducted by an administrative law judge who issues the initial decision.  Decisions may be appealed to a higher authority in the agency, then through the federal courts.  Most federal agencies write formal opinions.  Decisions and rulings are found on the websites of the federal agencies.  Examples follow in the table below.

 

Decisions and Rulings

University of Virginia Federal Administrative Decisions & Other Actions

Securities and Exchange Commission Enforcement

OSHA Review Commission decisions    1972-

EPA Decisions, Orders and Filings       1974-

 

Federal rules and regulations can be challenged in the federal courts.  Most challenges occur in the United States Courts of Appeal based on the premise that the fact-finding aspects of the case, the trial of the case, have occurred in the agency hearing and subsequent agency appeals. The courts have the authority to review federal agency rules and actions.  The court can decide all relevant questions of law interpret the constitutional and statutory provisions and interpret the meaning or applicability of a rule or regulation.  Decisions for appeals heard in the federal courts can be found on the federal courts websites.  See section IV, B.

 

C.  Presidential Documents

 

1.  Executive Orders and Proclamations

 

As discussed above, the President can issue Executive orders to direct the actions of the federal agencies or to set policies for the executive branch to follow.  They are official documents, numbered consecutively.  Executive orders are printed in the Federal Register

 

Executive Orders

National Archives Presidential Documents Guide

Executive Orders and Proclamations Tables, 1929-

Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders   1945 - 1989

Barack Obama Executive Orders   2009-

American Presidency Project Executive Orders   1826-    Pull down menu to select dates

 

2.  Presidential Documents

 

                  The Compilation of Presidential Documents is published by the Office of the Federal Register, The National Archives and Records Administration.  The online collection available on the GPO website combines the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (1993-2009) and the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents , 2009-  .   Statements, nominations, messages, speeches, press conferences and other Presidential materials released by the White House are found here. Searchable files go back to 1993. The Weekly Compilation is cumulated annually in the Public Papers of the President.

 

Presidential Papers and Documents

 

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1993- 2009

GPO: FDSys

Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, 2009-

GPO: FDSys

Public Papers of the Presidents, Reagan through Obama

GPO: FDSys

Library of Congress Presidential Papers

American Memory Collection

American Presidency Project : Searchable official papers from 1929-; messages and papers from 1789-1913; Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1977-2009; Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, 2009-

John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California,

Santa Barbara.

American Presidency Project: Presidential Signing Statements

John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California,

Santa Barbara.

 

VI. Meta Links 

 

Comprehensive Federal Law Websites (statutes, cases, regulatory sources)

Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII)

FDSys: Federal Digital System (GPO)

Findlaw

Hieros Gamos

Justia : Law & Legal Information for Lawyers, Students, Business and the Public

PLOL: Public Library of Law

 

VII. Search Engines

 

Google Scholar      Search and retrieve state and federal case law, some government documents  

MetaLib.gov   Service of the Catalog of US Government Publications, searches multiple U.S. Federal government databases, retrieving reports, articles, and citations while providing direct links to selected resources available online.

USA.gov                   US government’s office web portal to government information and services

 

 

VIII. Guides to United States Legal Research in other languages

 

Federal Judicial Center        Guides describing the US legal system and available in 18 languages

 



[ [1] ] Guides to researching the legislative history and intent of federal lawmaking are available on the L aw Librarians’ Society of Washington, DC  Federal Legislative History Sourcebook webpage.  It is second to none.  The Congressional Research Service has two reports on compiling legislative histories: Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide by Julia Taylor (2011) and Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff by Jerry W. Mansfield (2012).