Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978
The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, 44 U.S.C. ß2201-2209, governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981 (i.e., beginning with the Reagan Administration). The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents, and subsequently NARA, must manage the records of their Administrations. The PRA was amended in 2014, which established several new provisions.
Specifically, the PRA:
- Establishes public ownership of all Presidential records and defines the term Presidential records.
- Requires that Vice-Presidential records be treated in the same way as Presidential records.
- Places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.
- Requires that the President and his staff take all practical steps to file personal records separately from Presidential records.
- Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal have been obtained in writing.
- Establishes in law that any incumbent Presidential records (whether textual or electronic) held on courtesy storage by the Archivist remain in the exclusive legal custody of the President and that any request or order for access to such records must be made to the President, not NARA.
- Establishes that Presidential records automatically transfer into the legal custody of the Archivist as soon as the President leaves office.
- Establishes a process by which the President may restrict and the public may obtain access to these records after the President leaves office; specifically, the PRA allows for public access to Presidential records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) beginning five years after the end of the Administration, but allows the President to invoke as many as six specific restrictions to public access for up to twelve years.
- Codifies the process by which former and incumbent Presidents conduct reviews for executive privilege prior to public release of records by NARA (which had formerly been governed by Executive order 13489).
- Establishes procedures for Congress, courts, and subsequent Administrations to obtain “special access” to records from NARA that remain closed to the public, following a privilege review period by the former and incumbent Presidents; the procedures governing such special access requests continue to be governed by the relevant provisions of E.O. 13489.
- Establishes preservation requirements for official business conducted using non-official electronic messaging accounts: any individual creating Presidential records must not use non-official electronic messaging accounts unless that individual copies an official account as the message is created or forwards a complete copy of the record to an official messaging account. (A similar provision in the Federal Records Act applies to federal agencies.)
- Prevents an individual who has been convicted of a crime related to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records from being given access to any original records.