Administrative Law Research

This chart came from the GSU Law Library Introduction to Legal Research guide.

It is no surprise that many second- and third- (and sometimes even fourth- and fifth-) year law students cannot explain the difference between a regulation and a statute; it’s not exactly a hot-topic in the first-year curriculum.  This gap in knowledge leads to a lot of uncertainty in the area of administrative law research.

So, what is administrative law, exactly? Simply:

  1. Legislation. A statute (passed by the legislative branch) creates an administrative agency; this statute should also state the purpose, mission, and jurisdiction of this agency.
  2. Regulations. Agencies act on behalf of some public interest or need, and may issue both regulations and decisions, offering further guidance in that area of law where a regulation remains open to interpretation or has been violated by some action, respectively.
  3. Administrative Law. Much like statutes produced through legislative activities, these regulations define, prohibit, or require specified activities. These regulations tend to be very detailed in order to “fill in gaps” left open by broad legal framework of the authorizing statute.

Okay, so then what?  Here are some key sources to know for administrative law:

  • Federal Register. This is a daily publication of proposed rules, final rules, and public notices from federal agencies, published in chronological order.  The final rule sets the effective date of that regulation.
    • The table of contents of each publication offers a list of agencies that have new rules (regulations).
    • Each rule and notice is accompanied by contact information for an expert on that regulation within the promulgating agency.
    • The body of the Order is the legislative history.
    • A citation to the Code of Federal Regulations is given at the end of the Order (where applicable)
  • Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). This is an annual publication of all Federal regulations, arranged by subject! There are currently 50 titles of the CFR, each representing a broad topical area for regulation, arranged by agency!
    • Annual new volumes of the CFR only contain regulations that were in effect on its publication date.
    • The Government Printing Office (GPO) updates a specific range of CFR titles each quarter, as opposed to updating all 50 titles all at once. The updating schedule can be found from GPO website.

What about agency decisions? In addition to regulation-making authority, some agencies have the authority to interpret their regulations by issuing opinions (judgments) arising from alleged violations of the regulations. These opinions may be found in agency-published reporters, subject-specific loose-leaf or online services, like BNA, or in subscription databases, like Westlaw and Lexis.

One last bit of useful information: If you’re not sure what federal agency is responsible for a given industry or area of law, check out the U.S. Government Manual (a print copy is available at the reference desk).  This publication contains a listing of every federal agency, including its functions and its mission.  Another useful source is or the agency website, itself! Our law library has a list of some select agencies with links directly to their homepages.

One of my colleagues here at the law library, Prof. A. Hays Butler , teaches  an advanced legal research course on administrative law and legislative history; I had the great privilege of being able to sit in on this class earlier this semester.  I’d love to tell you more about this class, so stay tuned for the legislative history blog post!

Additional Sources:

Georgetown Law Library, Administrative Law Research Tutorial, part 2.

Georgia State University College of Law Library. Introduction to Legal Research Guide. Available from

Written by CDS.


One thought on “Administrative Law Research

  1. Pingback: Legislative History « Quo Vadis?

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