Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Friendlier Edition of the Federal Register

For those of you who already have some familiarity with administrative law, you probably know that researching in this area isn’t always easy or straightforward. Fortunately, with the help of the Government Printing Office (GPO for short), many of the needed resources are available for free online at One source of administrative law is the Federal Register, a daily publication of the federal government which includes notices, proposed rules, and final rules from federal agencies, as well as presidential documents.

While FDsys (which just stands for “Federal Digital System”) is a nice tool and provides an official PDF version of the Federal Register, it lacks the helpful navigational aids of a database like Westlaw or Lexis. Do not despair though, because Federal Register 2.0—a joint undertaking administered by the GPO, the Office of the Federal Register, and the National Archives and Records Administration—presents the same information that is available on FDsys, but with richly-linked pages, numerous navigational aids, and links to the official documents in PDF form. Best of all, Federal Register 2.0 is available for free! To appreciate the differences between the two sites, consider these screenshots of a new rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below is the version you would find on FDsys. (Click to enlarge all images.) As you’ll see, it’s only a PDF replication of the written version of the Federal Register. It’s a great resource, because it’s free, accessible, and official. However, it doesn’t offer any navigational aids—no way to review the history of the rule, or learn more about the agency, or find links to related materials.

Now it should be immediately clear how Federal Register 2.0 (shown below) differs. First of all, because this is a proposed rule, there is a link to (under “Submit a Formal Comment”), the website that allows the public to make comments on a pending regulation. While the HTML version that you see when you first visit the page is not official, there is a link to the right (where it says "PDF") which takes you to the official version; it’s a link to the version available on FDsys, so you don’t have to do a separate search to get to the official Federal Register. You’ll also find a clickable table of contents, allowing you to get to a particular section of the rule quickly; this feature also lets you get a sense of what is covered without having to read over the rule in its entirety. On the right, there's also a link to the affected CFR part. 

Getting to this document is easy. There are a number of ways to access documents on Federal Register 2.0: you can browse by agency, by date published, or by doing a search. Below is an example using a citation in the advanced search screen. As you can see, you can also limit the search by a number of criteria, like publication number, affected CFR parts, or agency, just to name a few.

If you’re interested in the work of one agency, you can use the drop-down menu from the main screen to access a website devoted to that agency in particular. 

There you’ll find an overview of the agency’s scope and functions, as well as a link to its official page. You’ll also find links to “Documents Pending Publication”, “Most Recent Significant Regulations”, etc. Finally, there’s a search bar on the page which allows you to automatically limit your search to documents issued by that agency.

While Federal Register 2.0 was created primarily to make law more accessible to those outside of the legal field, it also has a lot of advantages for law students and lawyers who might otherwise look at FDsys for an online edition of the Federal Register. It makes use of the internet to create a more dynamic site, one that better reflects the flow of regulatory processes than its static counterpart.

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