The man who wept after the committee he led voted articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon wants to be rememered for one quality during his 40 years in Congress: fairness.

"No one wants to pull down a president. There was only one thing we needed to do, and that was to assure that our system of government worked," recalled retiring Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey. "At a time when our country was in crisis, it was Rodino that was at the helm, upholding the Constitution."Packing up memorabilia in his Newark office recently, the 79-year-old Democrat who is stepping down after 40 years in the House proudly displayed photos of himself with John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

On his desk, last among the items to be packed, were hefty, bound transcripts of the 1974 impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon, which Rodino chaired.

"I believe in fairness and decency," the 79-year-old Democrat said. He gives credit to two inspirations: his immigrant father and the Constitution. His father, a tradesman, insisted that fairness be "a part of my life," Rodino recalled.

Rodino, who makes a habit of quoting the preamble to the Constitution, said, "In those 52 words, we have captured the framework of a society that not only is strong and great, but is caring and compassionate."

He was a drafter of the watershed 1964 Civil Rights Act and helped secure House passage of immigration reforms in 1965 and a fair-housing law in 1966. Rodino has served as chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee since 1974.

Rodino still sees himself in some ways as the young lawyer from this city's North Ward, who was just back from the war in 1948 when fate and the votes of his fellow Italians put him in Congress.

Rodino had failed two years earlier to oust veteran Rep. Fred Hartley, co-author of the Taft-Hartley labor law. When Hartley retired a term later, Rodino's dream became a reality.

Four decades later, Rodino is stepping down in the face of another reality: Just as Italians once held power here, the city now belongs largely to its black and Hispanic voters.